Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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English 3901a: History of the English Language (Spring 2021)

Posted: Jan 10, 2021 18:01;
Last Modified: Jan 22, 2021 15:01


About this course

Why don’t we spell knight nite?

Where does ‘silent e’ come from?

Why is it book and books but not sheep and sheeps?

Do we say somebody is six foot or six feet tall?

All of us have asked questions like these about the English language. This course will teach you how to find the answers. It covers the history of the English language from its pre-historic beginnings to its current position as the lingua franca of the modern world.

We begin with a brief survey of some important linguistic and methodological concepts. We then cover the major periods in the History of English paying particular attention to aspects that affect the way we now speak and write. In doing so we will cover the historical development of English sounds, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and rhetoric. We will also be looking at changes in the attitude of speakers of English towards their language’s position and importance in daily life.

The course is of general interest. It may be particularly useful for students considering further study in language art education, linguistics, medieval or classical languages and literature, or English history. No special training in linguistics, foreign languages, or grammar is required.

Learning goals

By the end of this course you should have an understanding of the principles of linguistic change, particularly as this applies to the English language. You should be able to recognise the major external and internal influences on the development of the English language and know how to research interesting forms and constructions using standard reference works.


Time and location


Contact information

My email is

My office hours (starting January 19) are:

Please see the Class Moodle for location information (on Zoom).

If you can’t make my office hours, I am also available by appointment




[1]. All exercises under this category are of equal weight. I reserve the right to add or subtract participation exercises during the year.

[2]. All exercises under this category are of equal weight. Exceptional work may be eligible for badges.

[3] Up to three blogs published in any one week may be counted for credit (though you are welcome to publish more than three). If you publish more than one blog, then the first one counts for 1 point and the second and third 1/2 point each (i.e. a maximum of 2 points in any one week). For the purposes of calculating grades, the week ends Tuesday night at Midnight (i.e. anything published after 00:00 on Wednesday belongs to the following week. Please look at the about blogs page to see my (liberal and easy-going) policies on what is required and acceptable in blogs

[4] Creative/alternative work will be accepted for the final written assignment only with prior permission of the instructor. Proposals for creative/alternative work will be considered the week before Reading Week. If you are considering a creative or alternative project for your final written assignment, please ensure you prepare a proposal and book an appointment to discuss it with Professor O’Donnell.

[5]. If any your work is exceptionally high quality it may be eligible also for Badges. Badges can be applied to any piece of work and always have the same value, regardless of the underlying value of the assignment (i.e. a “Great Distinction” badge is worth 3% of your final grade whether it is on your final essay or your first essay.
Mondays and Wednesdays
Students may submit one piece of “Inappropriate” work for regrading, provided they accompany this with a letter explaining what changes have been made to the resubmission. Students who resubmit work for grading will receive a 2.5% penalty on their final grade.


The following policies will be followed in all my classes unless otherwise announced. You are expected to be familiar with the policies reproduced here and in the more general section on my website. These additional web pages are to be considered part of this syllabus for the purposes of this course. Failure to conform to any of these policies may result in your grade being lowered.

Grade scale

The University of Lethbridge keeps track of student performance using a letter and grade point system (See section 4 of the University Calendar). Instructors assign students a letter grade at the end of each course (the University does not issue or record mid-term grades). These letter grades are converted to a numerical value (a Grade Point) for assessing overall academic performance (a Grade Point Average or GPA). The University does not record percentage-type grades and does not have a fixed scale for conversion from percentage scores to letter grades and grade points. Each instructor is responsible for determining their own methodology for determining students’ final letter grade.

In my classes, I use the following letter-grade to percentage correspondences:

  Excellent Good Satisfactory Poor Minimal pass Failing
Letter A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D F
Percent range 100-94 93-90 89-86 85-82 81-78 77-74 73-70 69-66 65-62 61-58 57-50 49-0
Conventional value 100 92 88 84 80 76 72 68 64 60 56 49-0
Grade point 4.0 3.7 3.3 3.0 2.7 2.3 2.0 1.7 1.3 1.0 0

How your grade is determined depends on the type of work being assessed. Tests of specific skills or knowledge (such as identification questions in literature classes, or fact-oriented tests in my grammar and language classes) are usually assigned a numeric score which is easily converted to a percentage. Essays, presentations, and other performance-oriented tests are usually graded by letter. I convert letter grades to percentages by taking the median value in each grade-range, and rounding up to the nearest whole percent. The only exceptions are A+ (which is converted to 100%), and F (which is converted to an arbitrary percentage between 0% and 49% based on my estimation of the work’s quality). These scores can be found in the conventional value row of the above table.

In marking work I try to keep the University’s official description of these grades in mind (a description can be found in the University Calendar, Part IV.3.a). If you get an A it means your work is excellent; a B means your work is good; a C means it is satisfactory; a D that it is barely acceptable (minimal pass); and an F that it is failing to meet University-level standards.

I have prepared rubrics for most types of qualitative assignments (assignments that do not expect the student simply to provide a correct factual answer). These can be found in my Academic Policies section:

Submitting Work

Tests, Exams, and Quizzes

Tests and Exams will be written on Moodle. Quizzes may be presented on Moodle.

Essays, Reports, and Posters

Essays and reports will be collected on Moodle. Unless prior permission has been given, all essays, reports, and posters must be submitted in PDF format.


This course uses plagiarism detection software. Any plagiarism will be treated very seriously: you can expect to receive a grade of 0 on the assignment as well as other penalties depending on the seriousness of the offence.

Class schedule

This schedule is a work in progress and will be updated over the next few weeks.

Week Date Topic Readings Recommended Exercises
1 11/1 Syllabus and Administrative Questions
13/1 The History of English in Overview
  • Ch. 1: Read all sections but concentrate on the following (we’ll go into the sections not mentioned here in detail next week)
    • Overview
    • Objectives
    • Why Study the History of English?
    • Linguistic Change In English
    • Attitudes towards linguistic change
    • Resources for studying the History of English
2 17/1 First homework submission (continues weekly)
19/1 Weekly Blog starts
20/1 Language and language change
  • Ch. 1: Reread more carefully the following sections:
    • A definition of language
    • The components of language
    • The nature of linguistic change
    • The origin of language
  • Ch. 3 Causes and mechanisms of language change (complete)
3 25/1
  • 1.1 Morphological and semantic concepts
  • 1.3 Analysing Shakespearean English
  • 3.2 Mechanisms of morphological and syntactic change
  • 3.3 Mechanisms of Semantic change
  • SE 3.1 Causes of change:“SE 3.2 Mechanisms of morphological change”:
  • SE 3.3 Mechanisms of Semantic change
27/1 English phonology
  • Ch.2 Sounds and Sound changes in English (complete)
4 1/2
  • Ch.2 All exercises and all supplemetary exercises
2/2-8/2 First Term Test
3/2 Indo-European
  • Ch. 4 The Indo-european language family and Proto-Indo-European
5 8/2
  • Ch. 4 All exercises and supplementary exercises
10/2 Germanic
  • Ch. 5 Germanic and the Development of Old English
13/2-21/2 Reading Week
6 21/2 First essay due
  • Ch. 5 all exercises and supplementary exercises
24/1 Old English
  • Ch. 6 The words and sounds of Old English
7 1/3
  • Ch. 6 all exercises and supplementary exercises
  • Ch. 7 The grammar of Old English
8 8/3
  • Ch. 7 all exercises and supplementary exercises
10/3 Middle English
  • Ch. 8 The rises of Middle English: Words and Sounds
  • Ch. 9 The Grammar of Middle English and the Rise of a Written Standard
9 15/3
  • Ch. 8 and 9 all exercises and supplementary exercises
16/3-22/3 Second term test
17/3 early Modern English
  • Ch. 10 The Words, Sounds, and Inflections of early Modern English
10 22/3
  • Ch. 10 all exercises and supplementary exercises
  • Ch. 11 Early Modern English verbal constructions and eighteenth-century Verbal Prescriptivism
11 29/3
  • Ch. 11 all exercises and supplementary exercises
31/3 Present Day English
  • Ch. 12 Modern English
12 5/4
  • Ch. 13 Varieties of English
  • Ch. 12 and 13: all exercises and supplementary exercises
13 12/4 Conclusion
Final Essay Due
15/4-23/4 Final Exam

English 3450a: Old English (Fall 2015)

Posted: Sep 09, 2015 12:09;
Last Modified: Jul 25, 2017 17:07



Contact information

My office is room B810B.

My email is

My telephone number is +1 403 329-2377.

My office hours (Sept-Dec, 2015) are:

About this course

English 3450 introduces students to Old English, the principal ancestor of our present day English, and the language of daily life in early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) England (from approximately the mid 400s to the mid 1100s).

The Calendar describes the course in this way:

The study of Old English language and literature. Instruction in basic Old English grammar and syntax, translation practice, and an introduction to the language’s literary and historical context.

As this suggests, our main goal will be to learn the Language. The English we speak today is derived largely from that spoken in the Anglo-Saxon period. Indeed, although the English language has borrowed a huge number of words from other languages, our core vocabulary, as much as 80% of the words we use in daily conversation, have their origins in Old English. The Anglo-Saxons often had different words for things we have since borrowed words to discuss—and of course we have developed many words for things the Anglo-Saxons had no knowledge of or reason to discuss! But they might well recognise many of the words we use to tie our sentences together and discuss every day activities.

The real difference will be in the grammar. Old English grammar is quite different from Modern English grammar, and, as a result, must be learned by most students as if it were a foreign language (students who know modern germanic languages such as High or Low German,Dutch, or the Nordic languages may find useful congruences to Old English).

In the course of the year, we will study and practice Old English grammar, phonology (the study of the sounds of a language), and script (how it is written). To provide us with a basis for comparison, we will also devote some attention to practicing and improving our knowledge of Modern English grammar and phonology. Our principal method of study, however, will be practical: most class and study time will be devoted to translation work from Old to Modern English.

Although it will not be the main focus of the course, students will complement their study of the Old English language with some study of its speakers and the culture in which it was used. We will discuss the range of Anglo-Saxon literature, learn about Anglo-Saxon culture and history, investigate the place of the Anglo-Saxons among their European contemporaries, and read some Anglo-Saxon literature in translation along side our readings in the original language.

Learning goals

By the end of the course students should have a basic reading knowledge of Old English and a sense of the period in which it was used. This involves being able to




This course uses two types of evaluation, formative (intended primarily to assist the student measure their progress and identify areas of improvement) and summative (intended primarily to assess a student’s success in accomplishing the course’s main learning goals.

Formative Assessment

Formative assignments are divided into two categories: exercises and reviews. Although grades will be assigned to most of these assignments, your final formative grade will consist of an equally weighted average of your best performance in each categories.

I will mark formative assignments handed in on the specific due date and will not mark work handed in late without a prior request for an extension or evidence of an emergency. While it is strongly recommended that students complete these projects on time, there is no specific penalty for failing to do so in any one instance. Students who do not receive a grade for at least one assignment in a formative category, however, will receive a grade of 0 for the entire category.

I reserve the right to add additional formative assignments to these categories throughout the semester in response to class interests and needs.

Category Assignment
Exercises What I did/did not know about Anglo-Saxon England
Poster and Presentation
Reviews Basic Paradigms and Translation
(Moodle: early October)
Advanced Paradigms and Translation
(Moodle: mid November)

Summative Assessment

Summative Assignments are used to determine how well students have accomplished the course’s learning goals. In addition to an average of students’ best score in each formative category, these will include a final exam, a research project, a translation project, and an attendance mark.

Assignment Value
Attendance [* 5%
Blog 10%
Average of best score from each formative category 15%
Translation leadership 10%
Research Prospectus 5 %
Independent Research Project. Due: End of Semester 30%
Final Exam (Moodle) Exam Period 25%

* Note: Students will be graded on their presence and preparedness each class. All students will be allowed up to 4 unexcused absences or days in which they cannot translate in class. After these 4 are used up ever absence or lack of preparedness will result in a 2% penalty. Unexcused absences beyond this will result in the docking of a letter grade for each additional absence/lack of preparedness. Excused absences (i.e. absences due to illness, medical appointments, emergencies or accidents, etc.) will not count against these totals.

The summative evaluation scheme presented here should be considered tentative and open to change until the beginning of the last class before the Add/Drop deadline. After this date, the version found on-line will be definitive.


The following policies will be followed in all my classes unless otherwise announced. You are expected to be familiar with the policies reproduced here and in the more general section on my website. These additional web pages are to be considered part of this syllabus for the purposes of this course. Failure to conform to any of these policies may result in your grade being lowered.

Grade scale

The University of Lethbridge keeps track of student performance using a letter and grade point system (See section 4 of the University Calendar). Instructors assign students a letter grade at the end of each course (the University does not issue or record mid-term grades). These letter grades are converted to a numerical value (a Grade Point) for assessing overall academic performance (a Grade Point Average or GPA). The University does not record percentage-type grades and does not have a fixed scale for conversion from percentage scores to letter grades and grade points. Each instructor is responsible for determining their own methodology for determining students’ final letter grade.

In my classes, I use the following letter-grade to percentage correspondences:

  Excellent Good Satisfactory Poor Minimal pass Failing
Letter A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D F
Percent range 100-94 93-90 89-86 85-82 81-78 77-74 73-70 69-66 65-62 61-58 57-50 49-0
Conventional value 100 92 88 84 80 76 72 68 64 60 56 49-0
Grade point 4.0 3.7 3.3 3.0 2.7 2.3 2.0 1.7 1.3 1.0 0

How your grade is determined depends on the type of work being assessed. Tests of specific skills or knowledge (such as identification questions in literature classes, or fact-oriented tests in my grammar and language classes) are usually assigned a numeric score which is easily converted to a percentage. Essays, presentations, and other performance-oriented tests are usually graded by letter. I convert letter grades to percentages by taking the median value in each grade-range, and rounding up to the nearest whole percent. The only exceptions are A+ (which is converted to 100%), and F (which is converted to an arbitrary percentage between 0% and 49% based on my estimation of the work’s quality). These scores can be found in the conventional value row of the above table.

In marking work I try to keep the University’s official description of these grades in mind (a description can be found in the University Calendar, Part IV.3.a). If you get an A it means your work is excellent; a B means your work is good; a C means it is satisfactory; a D that it is barely acceptable (minimal pass); and an F that it is failing to meet University-level standards.

I have prepared rubrics for most types of qualitative assignments (assignments that do not expect the student simply to provide a correct factual answer). These can be found in my Academic Policies section:

Submitting Work

Tests, Exams, and Quizzes

Tests and Exams will be written in the University’s testing labs on Moodle. Quizzes may be presented on Moodle.

Essays and Reports

Essays and reports will normally be collected using Turnitin. Information on our account (URL, ID number, and Password) will be made available in our class space on Moodle:


This course uses plagiarism detection software. Any plagiarism will be treated very seriously: you can expect to receive a grade of 0 on the assignment as well as other penalties depending on the seriousness of the offence.

Class schedule

The following schedule is intended to help you plan your work for this course. The schedule is tentative and subject to change.

Week Date Topic Classwork Background Reading
1 Mon. 7/9 No class
Wed. 9/9 Welcome Syllabus and assessment  
Fri. 11/9 Spelling and Pronunciation
  • 1.a Practice Sentences
2 Sun 13/9 Please complete your profile on Moodle (with picture and statement of interests) by midnight tonight.
Mon. 14/9  
  • 1.b Practice Sentences
  • § 6-9: Stress, Vowels, Diphthongs, Consonants
Wed. 16/9 Lecture: Inflected vs word order languages.
Fri. 18/9 Grammar Whole Class Tutorial: Old and Modern English Grammar
3 Mon. 21/9  
  • 1.c Practice Sentences
Wed. 23/9 Whole Class Tutorial: Grammar Practice I
Fri. 25/9 Whole Class Tutorial: Grammar Practice II
4 Sun. 27/9 What I did not know about Anglo-Saxon England Due by 23:59)
Mon. 28/9 Nouns: The Major Declensions
1) Strong Nouns
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy. 1-11
  • Cheatsheet: Nouns Row;
  • § 33: Masculine Strong Nouns; § 34 Strong Neuter Nouns; § 37 Strong Feminine Nouns
Wed. 30/9  
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy. 12-21
Fri. 2/10 2) Weak Nouns
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy 22-45
5 Mon. 3/10  
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy. 45-91
  • Cheatsheet: Nouns Row;
  • § 25: Weak Nouns
Wed. 7/10  
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy. 45-91
Fri. 9/10  
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy. 92-130
6 Basic Paradigms and Translation Review (Moodle) 12/10-19/10
Mon. 12/10 Holiday
Wed. 14/10 Whole Class Tutorial: Translation Techniques. Tips and Tricks.
Fri. 16/10  
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy, 150-178
7 Mon. 19/10 Verbs: The Major Declensions
1) Weak Verbs
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy. 131-167
  • Cheatsheet: Verbs Row;
  • §§ 87-88, 114: Introduction to OE Verbs; §§ 124-125: Weak verb lufian
Wed. 21/10      
Fri. 23/10 2) Strong Verbs
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy. 168-end
  • Cheatsheet: Verbs Row;
  • §§ 110-113: Strong Verb singan
8 Mon. 26/10 3) Irregular verbs
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 126 (beginning)-149 (translation)
  • Cheatsheet: Verbs Row;
  • §§ 126, 127, A.3b: habban, bēon, wēorðian
Wed. 28/10      
Fri. 30/10  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 150-180
9 Mon. 2/11 Adjectives: Declension and Syntax
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 180-212
  • Cheatsheet: Adjectives column;
  • §§ 66-67 Strong adjectives (learn gōd not til)
Wed. 4/11  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 212-250
Fri. 6/11  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 250-292
10 Advanced Paradigms and Translation Review 9/11-16/11
Mon. 9/11      
Wed. 11/11 Holiday
Fri. 13/11  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 292-331 (end)
11 Mon. 16/11  
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 1-35
Wed. 18/11 Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Metre
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 35-44 (Cædmon’s Hymn)
Fri. 20/11  
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 45-86
12 Mon. 23/11  
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 87-126 (end)
Wed. 25/11 Paleography Tutorial: Whole Class
Fri. 27/11  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 1-20a
13 Mon. 30/11  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 40-60a
Wed. 2/12  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 60b-80a
Fri. 4/12  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 80b-101a
14 Mon. 7/12  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 101b-121
Wed. 9/12 Poster session
Fri. 11/12 Catch up and review
Independent Research Project Due.
  14/12-22/12 Final Exam Period

A "Thought Piece" on Digital Space as Simulation and the Loss of the Original

Posted: Feb 11, 2015 11:02;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


A “Thought-Piece” on Digital Space as Simulation and the Loss of the Original: Final Paper for Dr. O’Donnell’s English 4400: Digital Humanities, Fall 2014

          In beginning to think about how I could integrate theory into my final project, I recalled Kim Brown, the DH Maker-Bus, and how she spoke about how her workshops with children have prompted kids to ask “big questions”. It occurred to me that the way in which humanists approach their own work is often very dependent on the ways humanity and culture are defined. It also occurred to me that now, more than ever, humanity and technology are converging. In this paper I want to explore the ways technology and the digital are seen as “copies” of an “original”. Drawing on theories post-humanism and post-modernism I will discuss technology and the internet as simulation. This paper will examine technophobia in the humanities and look to Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra, simulation, and the hyperreal in an attempt to explain resistance to the digital and technology, in terms of scholarship, but also examine the larger implications of copy replacing the original. I will attempt to deconstruct the lamentation of the loss of an original, with simulations made possible by technology, and how this affects understandings of things like research, the humanities, and humanity itself.

          To begin to deconstruct the lamentation of the loss of the original; a resistance to the simulated, or technology in the humanities. I think it is important to discuss the theoretical Baudrillardian notion of simulacra. The internet can be seen as a hub of simulation. Sites like Facebook, and Twitter, email, and skype, simulate physical forms of communication, and online shopping websites simulate the physical shopping experience. People have virtual relationships, pets, can gamble, can send money, can publish, and can donate to charity online. If one “goes shopping” online, did they really go shopping? The idea that “shopping” means anything other than physically going to a store is relatively new. With online shopping, the consumer is very much detached from any product, and uses simulations of money (debit, credit, or PayPal) in the privacy of their own home. The physicality is removed, and the process becomes much more abstract. However, the lack of physicality does not make it any less “valid”. Rather, the way shopping has traditionally been defined must be re-examined in the context of a hyperreal digital era. Researching online is not less valid than in a library. The idea I have heard purported by some of my professors that online research is easier or equates to less zealous or engaged students is supported only by the elevation of the original. The original in this sense being the physical book in the physical library. However, whether information is in print or online, the idea that knowledge is easier to learn, or less valued as digital seems to suggest that there is an obvious hierarchy in the value of medium. However, present (although not necessarily pervasive) fear or resistance to digital spaces in the humanities perhaps be explained by the notion that because there is so much virtual content, and simulations online in a digital environment, the truth is elusive. I think this stems from the idea that the “real” truth exists as something that is physical; which have been authenticated in simply by existing in a physical form, and simulations (being further detached from “Reality”) distort and become further removed from truth. The internet can be understood in many ways as the epitome of simulation and the hyperreal. Baudrillard recognized the virtual world as a fourth level of simulacra, building off of his previous three levels: counterfeit, production, and the code-governed phase. “The counterfeit” (Baudrillard 50) level, being in close proximity to the original, “production” being the reproduction of the original and the code-governed phase, a much more abstract assemblage, rooted in signs, and completely detached from the original. This third phase, the “code governed” phase refers primarily to language as code. For Baudrillard (and Derrida, Saussure and others), language creates a distance from reality. In many ways, language is a tool used to simulate reality. In hyperreality, a space comprised primarily of “copies”, and for the purpose of this paper, virtual, digital spaces, and the third or fourth level of simulacra, the simulation often becomes the original. Digital hyperreality, allows for interaction with the thing that is not present, or the lost or displaced “original”.

          If we apply this understanding of simulation and hyperreality to online scholarship, research, reading, teaching, and interaction, the “original” is the physical. That is to say, that texts contained in physical books, in physical spaces are privileged as closer to nature (although not equated to nature, since text itself is simulation, or code). Consistently, digital spaces as a viable research option are subverted in the humanities. Digital text disrupts the lasting finality of print, and seems to threaten the sanctity of Truth in the nature of its detachment from the physical or original. The act of moving our bodies from a home space, to a study space authenticates my research; I conducted research because what I interacted with was real, in the molecular sense. Reading “From Modernism to Post-Modernism”, and holding the book in my hands means I read the book. Did I still read the book if I read it online? Did I still “talk” to my professor if I sent an email? Am I still a person, a human in my entirety, if I have a digital eye?

          Many post-modern theorists such as Fredrich Jameson, saw simulation in terms of its artificiality, and that in itself carried the connotation of inferiority. For example, the consumption of non-artificial, non-simulated foods is praised and sought after. There is a desire to purify foods. More and more often, marketers carefully craft product information to of that which is not natural, or “originally” present in nature. Marketers include words such as “all natural, organic, home-made, home-grown, authentic” and many products (food specifically) is advertised as “GMO-free, no artificial colors, flavors”. In a more abstract sense, consuming food which has deviated from an “original”, is seen as inferior, despite the fact that studies such as A. L. Van Eenennaam and A. E. Young’s “Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations” have concluded that: “Numerous experimental studies have consistently revealed that the performance and health of GE-fed animals are comparable with those fed isogenic non-GE crop lines” (Van Eenennaam, Young). The mere fact that certain foods use technology threatens the sanctity of the original. In a similar way, technology is often demonized as a violation of biology. There are exceptions, and certainly, the average person would not reprimand (in any explicit way) an elderly person with a pacemaker, or a someone with prosthetic limbs. Figures like Donna Harraway posit that the definition of “human” is largely based on biological, anatomical qualities, such as DNA, and naturally occurring physical features. Anatomically, an amputee with prosthetics does not qualify as a human under Wikipedia’s bio-centric definition of a human. Is a person with prosthetics 81% human 19% machine? Where is this line drawn? At what point is a person too far removed from the “original” to be considered a human? If I am anatomically 75% machine am I still a human? No, not based on the current definition. “In the post-human, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (Lenoir 204). The copy, or simulation of body parts removes the cyborg from the current category of what it means to be human. However, this loss of the original allows for production of emancipatory copies. (Baudrillard) This can be seen in terms of the cyborg, (a failing heart allows for its copy, a pacemaker). We can look at the integration of technology into the body as a step in the direction of the eradication of distinction between original and copy. This has serious implications for humanity itself, in addition to the humanities as a discipline.

          In privileging only the original, natural, biological, and physical, it leaves no space for “the copy”, the simulation, or the hyperreal, where the original fails, or inconveniences. Baudrillard says: “the extinction of the original reference alone facilitates the general law of equivalences, that is to say, the very possibility of production” (52). This is particularly applicable to things like web-based journalism, scholarship, and communication… Baudrillard sees the loss of the original as emancipatory. He continues: “Through reproduction from one medium into another, the real becomes volatile, it becomes the allegory of death, but it also draws strength from its own destruction, becoming the real for its own sake, a fetishism of the lost object which is no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denigration and its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal” (72). If we apply this to the notion of online research in English literature, or the consumption of e-books, the real, that is, the physical, does draw strength from its destruction. The simulation through virtual mediums allows for people to engage with content despite physical limitations. Murray McGillivray illustrated this perfectly in his talk. He discussed the nostalgia for the original, as Baudrillard alludes to. He commented how the original manuscripts of medieval texts are extraordinary in their physical state. But he also recognized and concluded that, for the average student, accessing these originals is simply not possible for a number of reasons. The simulation of this text allows for other people to view the content. In turn, The Cotton Nero A.x Project, a simulation of medieval manuscripts, for a reader such as myself, literally replaces the original. That is powerful, given that I will likely not see the physical manuscript in my lifetime.

          Digitized text and content may be an element of hyperreality insofar as a website containing a book is not the same thing as a book. However, digital simulations can be seen as emancipatory for a number of reasons. Permitting, information is open access, or free to view, any person with a device and access to Wi-Fi is able to view that document, regardless of time, and place. (This does not take into account disadvantaged groups, or third world countries with little or no internet accessibility). However, multiple people can view the same thing simultaneously, freeing the content from the confines of a physical object, which cannot be viewed in its “original”. It’s copies can transcend space. While the internet and digital content is often blamed as being the cause of distraction, and poor performance, digital content has also proved to help people become more efficient. The physical book is nostalgic, it is comforting and personal and often carries with it, the sense of attachment, due to its physicality. I have heard professors and fellow students observe how students become easily distracted, how it is more difficult to sit down and read a book with unwavering concentration. Of course it becomes more difficult, since so much of how we operate within the world is now digital, instantaneous, and simulated. However the emancipation Baudrillard alluded to can also be applied to the consumption digital text. Instead of seeing digital content as this formidable “copy”; and lament the loss of the original, we can look to technology which relies on our detachment from the physical, as its selling point. Take “Spritz” for example. I use the “ReadMe” application, which is partnered with a developer called “Spritz”. Spritz’s whole software concept is to utilize the fast-paced, ever-changing, video-centric component of the internet and use it to help people read quickly. I downloaded the Application, “ReadMe”. An Application which separate the words one by one and displays them individually in order. The words are displayed, individually as fragments, of digital text, but as the websites points out, it is not practical for the average reader to read 500 words per minute. This format, however allowed me to read 25% of a 200 page book in about half an hour, with arguably better comprehension than using the “original” method. Accessing books this way is even farther removed from their originals. But that is its precise advantage, its medium is advantageous yes, but it makes reading less about the book, and more about the words. As an English major I found this technology unbelievably invaluable. “When reading, only around 20% of your time is spent processing content. The remaining 80% is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word and scanning for the next ORP. With Spritz we help you get all that time back” ( The original, in this case, can be seen as a hindrance because it is simply not as efficient, in my own experience. The copy in this instance is not a book at all. Baudrillard explains how digital environments, in a way, erode the thing(s) simulated in these digital spaces: “at this (virtual) level, the question of signs and their rational destinations, their ‘real’ and their ‘imaginary’ their repression, reversal, the illusions they form of what they silence or their parallel significations is completely effaced” (Baudrillard 57). What Baudrillard is saying here is that the divide between the signifier, in this case, virtual content, is so far removed from the original that the definition of the book itself is completely eroded. The e-book is no longer a book, the e-transfer is no longer a transfer in terms of its physical definition, and therefore reading a book online, is not really “reading a book”. Reading an e-book is reading a simulation of book; a copy of an original.

          The assertion that the copy does something to the original (Baudrillard 425) is true. In many cases the “copy” or simulation is superior to the original. The humanities is based on the study of humanity. History, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, all rely on a bio-centric understanding of humanity. There is a line that has been drawn as to what is considered human. The “original”; the natural. This biological understanding of humanity fared pretty well for centuries. Although there is lots of speculation amongst scholars as to what qualifies as a cyborg, the modern digital landscape has transformed most of the western world into cyborgs. The integration of technology onto our bodies, into our bodies is now more possible than ever. Baudrillard speculates: “Even today, there is a thriving nostalgia for the natural referent of the sign” (51). There is a sense of comfort in the “real”, following the historical assumption that for there to be real things there has to be a reliable, knowable system of production and in a digital space this does not exist. In a digital age, I think it is necessary to re-assess how humanity itself is classified. To stretch the definition beyond the biological and to recognize that the natural, or biological is not always superior.

          The idea that by doing something in a virtual setting or digital space, is almost like it never happened, is another theme Baudrillard closely explores in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Digital environments as simulations does something to the original. In the simulation’s instantaneousness, multiplicity, accessibility, and artificiality, the original becomes sacred, and unknown in an overwhelming sea of homogeneity of simulations. Baudrillard does see the loss of the original as potentially freeing, but also recognizes the effect that simulations have on the original. The Gulf War as people came to understand it through its simulation or virtuality in film is not the same as the original war. The simulation cannot be the thing it copies. It can replace the original in the sense that people only access an original, through a copy, but it does not equate to the original its totality. It might be crude to compare war and research but the theoretical assertion that online, virtual research is not the same as researching or reading in its original bodily, physical sense. However for those who viewed the Gulf War through television, that simulation became the original, in the viewer’s inability to access the original. The experiences are different and the same. Online research is not the dictionary definition of research, but in one’s strict engagement with the simulation of texts in a digital or virtual space, that new simulated experience becomes the original. The result is that one may not go to the library, unless the simulation is not available, at which point one tries to access it’s original.

          The idea that research can occur as a purely visceral, mental experience (simulation), fundamentally changes the definition of research. The simulatory nature of anything digital or technological fundamentally changes the definition of the thing it simulates. I think in demonizing the simulation, you resist progress. Very broadly, resisting technology and the digital on the grounds that it is inferior to the physical or original, means that in many cases, progress or efficiency is delayed. Discrediting the power of virtual technology as a means to communicate because it does not carry the same nostalgia as face-to-face communication means that valuable, virtual conversations with Alex Gil for instance would never have occurred. Similarly, professors requiring students to seek out an expected number of print resources in research can correlate to missing out on valuable virtual or digital research. I always find myself back to the concept of “big questions”. The topic of technophobia and resistance to the digital in some humanities spaces can be explored as a discussion of theory. Baudrillard’s work on simulacra and simulation has allowed me to explore the sometimes subordinate status of simulation and copies. My paper focused mostly on the loss of the original and the ways in which this can be seen as emancipatory, especially when we begin to consider the implications the digital and simulated has on how humanities research is conducted, and the discipline itself is defined. These theories can be applied to the greater understanding of humanity. The merging of technology and humanity has led to massively complicated questions, not only about simulation and original, in terms of research and scholarship, but of humanity in general. Where does machine begin and human end? And are cyborg’s the new species? I don’t think I would have pushed myself to trying to understand the boundaries of humanity and machinery in a post-human sense, without this course. In this merging of technology into classroom’s and bodies, it is clear that the definition of the original must be expanded to include its copies, and simulations.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Symbolic Exchange and Death.” From Modernism to Postmodernism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

          421-434. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications Inc., 1993. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Baudrillard Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991. Print.

Harraway, Donna. From Modernism to Postmodernism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 460-484. Print.

Horn, Eva. “Editor’s Introduction: “There Are No Media”.” (Abstract). Grey Room 29 (2007): 6-13. Web. 4 Dec. 2014

Lenoir, Timothy. “Makeover: Writing the Body into the Posthuman Technoscape: Part One: Embracing the Posthuman.” (Excerpt).

         Configurations 10.2 203–220. Web. 6 Dec. 2014

Van Eenennaam, A. L., and A. E. Young. “Prevalence and Impacts of Genetically Engineered Feedstuffs on Livestock Populations.”

         American Society of Animal Science (2014): 1–61. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.


The People’s Field: The Ethos of a Humanities-Centred Social Network

Posted: Feb 05, 2015 10:02;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


Hello readers of Daniel Paul O’Donnell’s blog. My name is Megan and I am a former student of his, having completed (among others) his 2014 seminar on the Digital Humanities. The following is a paper I wrote for that class, which Dan has kindly offered to feature on his blog.

The inspiration for this essay comes from my experience as a musician, specifically a guitarist. It has always been possible to — indeed, far more common anyway, I would think — to learn to play outside of a classroom setting. But the Web has given us something spectacular: huge social networking websites aiming to encompass all aspects of playing guitar, whether learning, teaching, critiquing, or making music with others. The education is there, and the community too, similar to the post-secondary experience. If non-academic music education can thrive online, why not the humanities?

I’m sure many of you are humanities people, and so I’m also sure you’ve thought about the State of the Humanities — their financial viability, their usefulness, their place in academia and in general public life. This essay is not so much an argument as it is a reflection, an appeal to all of us humanists to broaden the venue and audience of what we do. It is an appeal to think bigger: not what the humanities should look like just in academia, but what they could look like in the wider world. Humanists hate clichés, but I think one rings true in this case: if we love what we do, we have to set it free.

The People’s Field: The Ethos of a Humanities-Centred Social Network

In a 2010 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Donoghue attempts to finally answer why the academic importance of the humanities is seemingly in permanent dispute:

The shift in the material base of the university leaves the humanities entirely out in the cold. Corporations don’t earmark donations for the humanities because our research culture is both self-contained and absurd. Essentially, we give the copyrights of our scholarly articles and monographs to university presses, and then buy them back, or demand that our libraries buy them back, at exorbitant markups. And then no one reads them. The current tenure system obliges us all to be producers of those things, but there are no consumers.

The public simply does not need humanities research the way it needs scientific or medical research – incest in Hamlet or the meaning of Finnegan’s Wake are still great questions worth pursuing, but no one’s life hinges on the resolution of Hamlet’s fraught relationship with his mother; people will and do, however, die of cancer and diabetes, and James Joyce cannot fry our brains if climate change does it first. For a field whose very name suggests a focus on all humankind, the humanities’ products are remarkably individualistic in scope, the pet projects of bookworms. Yet this is not to say these products have no value, nor is the decline of the humanities as an academic field indicative of a culture that no longer cares for literature, history, languages, or philosophy. Donoghue notes that

Intelligent popular novels continue to be written; the nonfiction of humanists who defy disciplinary affiliation . . . will still make best-seller lists; and brilliant independent films . . . will occasionally capture large public audiences. The survival of the humanities in academe, however, is a different story. The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won’t be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don’t need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own.

People will always enjoy creating and consuming literature; it is the demand for literary (and other humanities-centered) criticism that is constantly being called into question in modern academia. But if not in universities, whither that criticism? The answer lies in the one of the most ubiquitous – and perhaps most important – technological developments in recent history: social media. The aim of this paper is twofold: firstly, to prove that social media, specifically social networking websites, is a viable way to build a consumer base for literary criticism; second, to provide an outline of the features of a theoretical humanities-centred social network and how it would operate. For simplicity’s sake, my project will focus primarily on only one aspect of the humanities, namely literary criticism, and it will admittedly be North American-centric in its analysis of the state of the humanities and assumptions of available technology.

First let us take a more in-depth look at what is seemingly Wrong with the humanities. Little academic research has gone into this topic (though Stuart Hall formally explores the disconnect between the less-than-concrete goals of the humanities and its potential for informing social activism in his pre-Web 2.0 “Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities”). However, the last five years have provided a plethora of popular articles devoted to parsing out this perennial problem. Two key themes endure: for one, the typical argument that the humanities do not make employable graduates, thus turning the field into more of an economic burden than an aide (Sinclair); second, the more interesting idea of a disconnect between the public and humanist academia, causing the hoi polloi to distrust the humanities and therefore not value them. With regards to the first argument, Stefan Sinclair claims that, “the attacks on the humanities are bolstered by the underlying assumption that in this model [the “knowledge-based” economy] every department must rely solely on their own market revenues. Whether or not humanities departments would actually be viable in this model is up for debate, but commentators often assume this would not be the case.” David Lea attributes these assumptions to a shift from collegial to managerial principles in university governance; administrative and technology-centred spending has thus increased at the expense of cuts to the humanities (261). Sinclair obviously finds these assumptions and their resulting cuts unfair and unimaginative, and he does remain somewhat justified in that no one seems to have expended any thinking on how to make the humanities a more profitable academic field. Yet that point brings us right back to Donoghue: the humanities are inherently insular, and their societal effects are markedly indirect compared to the immediate benefits of the natural sciences, technology, and medicine.

This self-contained nature brings us to the second key explanation of the humanities’ decline. Surprisingly, much of the popular criticism involves not the economics-centred points above, but the argument that the humanities have become inaccessible to the wider population. Mark Bauerlein recounts the myriad points made during the 2011 symposium “The Future of the Humanities,” and summarizes the perceived problem as the “neglect or inability or lack of desire . . . [of humanists] to speak directly to the public in a public language” (Bauerlein). One can easily take objection to this argument: scientific papers are just as – if not more so – incomprehensible to the average citizen. Academia is fundamentally esoteric. But the humanities differ greatly from the sciences in one key aspect, laid out by Steven Knapp:

An investment in their [art and literature’s] particularity and therefore in their history is what most deeply and importantly separates the objects and events studied by the humanities from the phenomena studied by the natural and even the social sciences. In science, what matters is not the irreplaceable particularity, the irreplaceable origin, of the phenomenon in question but instead its generalizability and therefore precisely the replaceability of its particular history.(Knapp)

In other words, the sciences are necessarily future-oriented; they are always looking for answers to improve upon current human knowledge, to make generalizations such as “climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions” and thus replace the old understandings. The humanities do not operate in this way. They are concerned with and motivated by “the pleasure human beings take in the particularity of lived experience . . . the pleasure human beings take in preserving and enjoying particular things” (Knapp). The subject matter of the humanities therefore belongs to the public in a way that of the sciences does not: the vast majority of us cannot learn to explain the physical world in Newton’s laws without at least some instruction, but most of us can read Hamlet and get something out of it, regardless of formal instruction in literary criticism. Knapp elaborates: “What matters to the public is Shakespeare, not the logic of theatrical representation. What matters is the story of America, not the ideological structure of American essentialism” (Knapp). North American academe’s current love affair with (in his opinion) deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, and post-colonialism has alienated the public: “Humanities professors disrespected great works, so naturally the public turned around and disrespected them” (Bauerlein). Of course, we can hardly blame humanities scholars for examining literature through these ideological lenses; to expect professors to never question the messages of canon texts and dominant cultural narratives is tyrannical. But we must respect the fact that art and literature belong to the people and therefore traditional readings remain valid as well.

Yet the pleasure-motivated, “particularity”-centred nature of literary criticism is also a point against the humanities in academia. Laurie Fendrich claims “the only way to justify studying the humanities is to abandon modern utilitarian arguments in favor of much older arguments about the end, or purpose of man. Yet Darwin, in firmly swatting down the idea that man has an end, makes returning Aristotle . . . difficult for most modern thinkers” (Fendrich). There is a kind of nobility in studying literature, but as reasoned above, the humanities simply do not provide the kind of progress-fuelling information that the STEM fields do. Fendrich further recalls the highly elite nature of the early university, where well-to-do young men would go to learn the classics, philosophy, and languages, becoming “knowledgeable” but ultimately “useless” – a place where they could spend their time before inheriting their prospective family wealth (Fendrich). Now that universities have opened up to the “common” people, the study of literature has opened as well; however, this democratization of education means that post-secondary institutions must prepare students whose various social classes necessitate they will spend their lives in the workforce, not luxury drawing rooms.

None of these commentators propose any real solutions to the humanities problem; in fact, they all admit that the purpose of the humanities will always be called into question in utilitarian modern (i.e. Western) society. So what can we do with them? The answer is difficult – perhaps ultimately irresolvable – and this paper’s scope can only propose a partial remedy. The humanities are so deeply entrenched in academia that it would be unreasonable to simply get rid of them altogether, at least in the foreseeable future. We must maybe admit that studying literature in university is a privilege for those who need not worry about work once they graduate, and those of us from the middle- and working-classes who take that route must deal with the consequences. But by examining the problems, we can at least parse out a partial remedy: the humanities are the people’s pleasure, and we must give it back to them.

The answer lies in social media. David Lea, in addition to the shift from collegial to managerial values, places the decline of the humanities on online learning, despite what he admits might be “obvious financial advantages” (261). Providing the humanities with a physical space is expensive; moving them online would cut costs to university departments, though of course there remains the desire to teach the humanities in actual classrooms. David Lea is therefore right to worry about the threat of online learning to the state of humanities education. But his observation also reveals a willingness among the public to transfer the education process to an online environment, and this willingness could be the saving grace of the humanities, the opportunity to bring it back to the people. My outline of a theoretical humanities-centred social network provides the crux of my argument.

First of all, social media can be split into five or six broad types. For our purposes, we will use Tim Grahl’s categories: 1. Social networking sites, where users create profiles to connect with others (e.g. Facebook); 2. Bookmarking sites, where users “save, organize, and manage links” (e.g. StumbleUpon); 3. Social news, where users share links with others and rate them (e.g. Reddit); 4. Media sharing, where users upload their own content, often accompanied by “additional social features, such as profiles, commenting, etc.” (e.g. YouTube); 5. Microblogging, “services that focus on short updates that are pushed out to anyone subscribed to receive the updates” (e.g. Twitter); and finally, 6. Blog comments and forums. Grahl further notes that many social media platforms incorporate features from multiple categories (Grahl). A humanities social network would primarily combine elements from categories 1 and 4, with elements of 2, 3, and 6.

The raison d’être of a humanities social network would be providing students, hobbyists, and professional academics with a space to upload and share their writing on various works of literature. Much like media networking sites YouTube or DeviantArt, users would create a profile in which they would list their literary and critical interests: which authors and styles they admire, which critical theories they like to employ. All content they upload would be labelled with various tags indicating the topic and types of criticism used; these tags would make the content searchable by other users, who could search for writing on a particular topic, read other peoples’ work, and provide feedback or invite them to be “friends” in a similar vein to Facebook. Users could then follow their friends’ content, discover the writing of their friends’ friends, and in turn building a community of people whose primary connection to each other is their passion for literature. The perceived hierarchy between professor and student, or academic and layman, would not exist, encouraging a perception of literary criticism as a hobby, accessible to anyone with a favourite book and ideas they can support. Another important feature reinforcing this bond would be discussion forums, allowing users to have meaningful conversations about works of literature and critical theories outside of the context of a particular paper’s comment page. Again, these discussion forums would blur hierarchical lines and make literary criticism accessible.

The success of social networks-with-a-purpose such as LinkedIn and sets a precedent for the branching out of a humanities social network. The website could easily split into a free version, and a premium version where established academics wishing to publish professionally can do, creating a database similar to JSTOR or Project Muse. Like those two databases, postsecondary institutions could pay for the premium version to give their students access to these articles, and students would still be able to share their opinions on the article with other users. Integrating this social network into university online services could reduce costs paying for physical copies of journals; furthermore, it would serve to get students interacting with their peers both inside and outside their institution, as well as with people not enrolled in academia. Furthermore, incorporating elements of social media categories 2 and 3, students could save papers (from the academic premium version only, as saving papers from the free version would invite too many complications regarding plagiarism) and rate them for students writing on similar topics. The noble intentions of the academic humanities and the pleasure of the people would both be served.

In the face of a changing academic landscape, the humanities are increasingly perceived as too costly for institutions and too pretentious for everyday people. A social network focused on the humanities would help remedy that, fostering the perception that literary criticism is accessible, while providing a database with the potential to cut costs for libraries.

Works Cited

Bauerlein, Mark. “Oh the Humanities!” Weekly Standard. 16 May 2011./p>

Donoghue, Frank. “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 05 Sept. 2010.

Fendrich, Laurie. “The Humanities Have No Purpose.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 20 Mar 2009.

Grahl, Tim. “The 6 Types of Social Media.” Out:think. Out:think Group.

Hall, Stuart. “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities.” Humanities as Social Technology. 53. (1990): 11-23.

Knapp, Steven. “The Enduring Dilemma of the Humanities.” Phi Beta Kappa Society. Phi Beta Kappa Society, 29 Mar 2011.

Lea, David. “The Future of the Humanities in Today’s Financial Markets.” Educational Theory. 64.3 (2014): 261-83.

Sinclair, Stefan. “Confronting the Criticisms: A Survey of Attacks on the Humanities.” The Digital Humanities Community, 09 Oct 2012.


Four National and International talks by University of Lethbridge Digital Humanities students

Posted: Feb 02, 2015 12:02;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


A quick catchup post: this semester is shaping up to be a blockbuster in terms of University of Lethbridge Digital Humanities students’ success in national and international refereed conferences.

The semester began strongly with Kayla Ueland’s presentation “Reconciling between novel and traditional ways to publish in the Social Sciences” at the Force 2015 conference in Oxford this past January. Ueland is a graduate student in Sociology and a Research Assistant in the Lethbridge Journal Incubator.

We have also just heard that four students and recent graduates of the University of Lethbridge’s Department of English have had papers accepted at the joint meeting of the Canadian Society for the Digital Humanities/Société canadienne des humanités numériques and the Association for Computers and the Humanities.

The students and their papers are:

Babalola Aiyegbusi is a recent graduate of the department’s M.A. programme (2014). Rawluk and Alexander, are both fourth-year undergraduates. Singh is a first year M.A. student.


Late policy

Posted: Jan 03, 2015 18:01;
Last Modified: Jan 03, 2020 13:01


Assignments are due at the date and time specified on the syllabus or discussed in class (Not attending class is not an excuse for failing to keep up to date on due dates). Unless I specifically note otherwise, however, you can almost always take a few extra hours without asking permission.

If you need a long extension than this, you should ask. As long as I haven’t started marking the exercise, I am usually fine with granting extensions. I am less able to accommodate extensions after I have begun marking the assignment.

If you are sick, have a family emergency, or face some other crisis, I am almost always willing to grant an extension. While I prefer to know in advance, I can accept retroactive requests when the nature of the emergency requires it. I do not normally need a doctor’s note or other evidence, though I reserve the right to ask.

If I do not grant an extension, late penalties may apply. These can be as high as 1/3 for a letter grade per day (i.e. a “B” essay that is one day late would receive a grade of “B-”; if it is two days late, its grade would be lowered to a “C+”). Penalties are applied after an essay is graded (so you will know both the original and the final grade after penalties have been applied).

There are three times I am inflexible about extensions; these are exceptions to my usual policies and can have more significant consequences):

  1. When the nature of the assignment requires work to be submitted at a specific time for some pedagogical reason (i.e. in class presentations, peer review, etc.). In such cases it is usually not possible to grant any extensions except medical/emergency ones.
  2. Exams: I normally give students a window in which to write exams. Because I need to coordinate this with the testing centre, it is difficult to grant extensions to this window. Except in extremely unusual cases, you must write exams during the window specified. Emergencies and “unusual cases” do not include vacations, weddings, and the like. The schedule (and syllabus) is available before the beginning of term. Do not take the class if you have an unavoidable social obligation that will prevent you from writing a text or exam.
  3. Final Exams: If there is a final exam in my class, it is usually on Moodle and runs from the first to the last day of the exam period. I am not allowed by university regulations to grant extensions or other exceptions to this date. If you must miss the exam period for some emergency reason, you need to contact the registrar’s office or student advising to see what, if any, options are available for you.

KISS and tell grading

Posted: Dec 27, 2014 17:12;
Last Modified: Jun 03, 2016 11:06


This is a long post in which I work out some new ideas I have about incorporating pass/fail formative grading in my courses.


Experimenting with undergraduate assessment

For the last few years I’ve been experimenting with different types of assessment and assignments.

I’m an English professor, Digital Humanist, and medievalist, and so my overall goal is to create an environment in which students are self-motivated to define, think, research, and communicate concretely and clearly about problems in the humanities. This work has involved thinking about what it is we are trying to do when we teach “the essay” (see my and my students’ work on the unessay). It has also involved a heavy use of blogging and the introduction of other elements (most recently poster sessions) designed to help establish the class as a model scholarly eco-system.

Experiments with grading

And it has involved grading.

Starting about five years ago, I began experimenting with making a formal distinction between formative and summative grades (formative grades are grades that help a student and instructors monitor ongoing progress; summative grades are grades that assess and report how well a student has progressed retrospectively). After I introduced blogging and the unessay, I began to experiment with pass/fail marking. Since an important element of both my approach to blogging and the unessay is that students are given complete freedom to explore their own interests and skills, it seemed counterproductive (and indeed disingenuous) to then assign summative percentage grades on the basis of some exterior rubric. I still do try and assess student work qualitatively when it makes sense pedagogically—most of my assignments have a component that requires students to establish the standard they are trying to meet, for example, and that is something one can have partial success at defining and/or meeting. But given my belief that the biggest problem facing our students is fear of grades—a fear that makes them err on the side of conservativism and underperformance to a degree I consider to be almost an academic offense—it makes very little sense to me to encourage this behaviour by making them perform against a comparative grading system.

Grades higher, but in response to greater effort.

The results of this approach have been very encouraging. On the whole, I find, my students write better, participate more enthusiastically, certainly show better attendance, and, I believe, take greater responsibility for their learning. And on the whole they also, I think, write better (i.e. more positive) course evaluations (my score on has risen from a pre-2009 average of 2.5 to a post-2009 average of 3.1, and indeed 3.6 since I introduced the unessay in 2012).1

The grades my students earn have on the whole been higher for my classes—something that is known to affect student evaluations positively. But this also correlates to far greater effort: my average attendance is now around about 90% with my worst students clocking in at about 60% and students write on average a couple of hundred words a week in their blogs (the equivalent of an extra essay or two per semester); you’d expect students putting in that kind of effort to score higher. Moreover, although the grades were higher on average, I did not find them to be out-of-line with individual performances: there were more As and Bs because there were more students doing what I consider to be A- and B-level work; and there were fewer Ds and Fs because the minimum amount of effort my students were putting in was also greater than in my earlier offerrings.

In other words, grading more work on a pass-fail basis didn’t seem to inflate my grades all that much. Instead of earning Cs through my qualitative grading of their work, my C students instead tended to hand in about a C-level’s worth of pass-fail work. On the whole, I found, students still tended to perform at a level equivalent to the qualitative grade they received on their final essays or exams.

Rewarding efficiency rather than accomplishment.

This changed this past semester. For the first time since I started this new approach to grading, I found that my final grades were both exceptionally high and out of line with my sense of the actual quality of work I was receiving. In part this was because this group also worked hard (the average student, for example, exceeded the minimum number of required blog entries by almost 25%). But I also had the impression that it was because they were becoming better at gaming the assessment system I had established: because I’d not had any problem with grade inflation, I had not been all that careful about how I used bonus marks, for example, and it was entirely possible to get very significant boosts to your GPA by correctly playing for bonus marks. This year, for the first time, I had a serious problem with students who grades were a better reflection of their efficiency in gaining bonus marks than their actual learning as demonstrated in their year-end summative exercises.

What needs to change.

So it is now time to change this. In part what I needed to do was simply sit down and review my standard distribution of marks: when you make as many changes as I have in the last few years, it is necessary to sit down every so often and do a systematic review.

But it is also the case that I need to come up with a better approach to the use of pass-fail grades. While my experience agrees with studies that show that pass/fail can improve student outcomes, I also work within a system that uses grades to distinguish between different levels of accomplishment: I was not happy with my results this semester precisely because I felt that they inflated the grades of some students above their actual level of performance. What I’m need is to adjust my system so that student performance on pass-fail grades reflects appropriate level performance and subject-mastery and help me distinguish among (and identify) students who are having a more or less difficult time with the material.

Two interesting approaches to pass-fail assessment.

A bit of research has pointed me at two interesting approaches to this problem: “Standards Based Grading” (SBG) and “Specifications Grading” (SG).

These systems are variants on each other. The basic idea behind them is that “pass/fail” does not have to mean “submitted/not-submitted.” In the past, I’ve essentially treated the equivalent of a D (i.e. poor) as being a “pass” in my pass-fail assessment: if the work was handed in and it looked like a reasonably good faith effort, then it received a grade of pass, regardless of whether it showed actual mastery of the exercise or topic.

The idea behind both SBG and SG, instead, is that work “passes” when it the learning goals for the exercise or unit have been met: i.e. that a “pass” is actually roughly the equivalent of a badge rather than a numeric grade and that passing a course means demonstrating actual mastery of specific skills and learning outcomes rather than simply handing in a set amount of better or worse work.

SG takes this one step further, by establishing different workloads for different grades. In this system, students are told what the minimum amount of work expected for a specific grade is—and what additional work they can do if they want to get more than that grade. So, for example, students might be told that a “C” grade requires the successful completion of one exercise from each unit to a minimum standard, while an “A” would require completion of three such exercises per unit. This allows students to decide how much work they want to put into a course while requiring them to complete the work they do do to an appropriately high standard.

What works and doesn’t for me.

As much as I like the core of this approach (i.e. treating pass/fail like a type of badging and requiring mastery rather than just submission in order to “pass”), there are some things about it that, if I’m understanding things correctly at least, seem less attractive to me:

They seem to require detailed rubrics

As described by many practitioners, both SBG and SG require detailed rubrics. I.e. students are assessed on whether or not they have carried out the details of the assignment they were given: if they do (SBG), or if they do it to a pre-determined level of accomplishment (SG), they pass; if they do not, then they don’t.

This is antithetical to the approach to fostering student responsibility and judgement that I have taken in designing the Unessay and using blogs in my class. I believe that a major problem among our undergraduates has to do with what I have described as the exercise as compulsory figure problem. I.e. a sense that equates coursework with makework and fails to appreciate the extent to which it is actually a trial run for work/research/learning in the real world.

My response to this has been to reduce the amount of detail I put in my rubrics rather than increase it. I now tell students why they are being given an assignment, what I hope they’ll learn from it, and then leave them free to work out for themselves what technical parameters might be necessary for excellence in relation to these goals. I don’t want to go back to encouraging them to see assignments as lists of things they need to check off.

They have poor mechanisms for identifying and rewarding qualitative excellence.

Neither system seems that good at recognising qualitative excellence in any single performance. In the case of SBG, this is perhaps a feature rather than a bug: the whole point of adopting SBG is to recognise better-than-minimal performance instead of better-than-average performance; one of the reasons pass/fail systems reduce student anxiety and speed up grading is that they avoid attempting to find small gradations among adequate performances. Presumably people who feel that it is important to distinguish among different levels of adequate performance will prefer a system (such as the traditional four point ABCD grading system) that is designed to do this.

In the case of SG, however, the flaw is a little more serious, because SG has been designed to allow students to choose different levels of achievement: a student who is happy with the minimal grade will do the minimum number of exercises to the level required to pass the course; but SG also offers students an opportunity to gain higher-than-minimum grades by completing additional pass/fail work.

What is wrong with this is that it treats excellence as a function of quantity rather than quality. An average student who is not able to clear the minimum standard for any one assignment by very much can never-the-less earn a greater-than-average grade simply by completing more exercises to to this minimum standard. If we assume that an instructor sets “pass” at “B,” then it would be entirely possible under this system for a student to earn an “A” by simply doing lots of B-level work.

This is actually the problem that is causing me to reevaluate my grading in the first place. The problem I had with my grade distribution this past semester was not that students weren’t completing lots of work—they were, in fact, working extremely hard, evern on average. It was that students were receiving a grade of “excellent” for what was, in essence, just more than expected amounts of average work. What really separates excellence from average is not the amount of work you do, but the quality of that same work. It is entirely possible to shine from your first assignment.

My adaptation of these Standards-Based and Specification Grading

So what I need is a system that does the following:

  1. Contributes to reducing student anxiety by marking formative work on a pass-fail basis
  2. Maintains standards by setting the bar for “pass” at “meets learning goals” rather than “submitted a good faith effort.”
  3. Provides a system for recognising and rewarding qualitatively exceptional work
  4. Does not systematically result in students receiving higher term grades than the qualitative level of their accomplishment reflected in their semester-end summative scores would suggest. I.e. on the whole, I want C students to have C grades, and while I am prepared to accept that a particularly hard working C student might earn a somewhat higher grade for exceptional effort, I do not want average students consistently earning very much higher than “average” grades (compared to their peers in other classes) for work that is not also qualitatively higher than average.

The way to do this, it seems to me, is the following:

  1. Maintain a distinction (and rough balance) between formative and summative grades and assignments
  2. Grade formative assignments on a 3 point scale: Appropriate, Below expectations, and Fail
    1. “Appropriate” means “shows achievement of learning goal” (i.e. at least a “satisfactory”) rather than simply “submitted and complete” or “more right than wrong.”
    2. “Below expectations” means that a submission was submitted and represents a good faith effort, but does not show the student has achieved the learning goal. In this case a student may revise and resubmit the work, with an accompanying explanation of what they revised (i.e. similar to that required of researchers by journals). Each resubmission carries with it a 3% penalty on the student’s final grade.
    3. “Fail” means that the work was not submitted or does not represent a good faith effort. “Fail” cannot be done over.
  3. Ensure that the value of all formative assignments is less than or equal to the average expected grade for the course (i.e. in a third year course the U of L, this would mean that the total value of all formative assignments should be 80% or less, since the average for a third year course is “B”).
  4. Allow students to collect tokens for every formative assignment they complete that exceeds expectations. When these tokens are added to the formative exercises, the total should be 100% of the formative grade.

An example.

This is a bit difficult to explain (right now, at any rate, for me) in abstract, so here’s an example from my upcoming medieval literature class to show how the system is supposed to work:

Note: All assignments are worth equal weight within their category

1 I should say that I don’t consider (or any other single metric) to be a measure of good teaching per se, since there are different kinds of good teaching including types that are missed by the RateMyProfessor approach. However, is a metric of one aspect of teaching (I suspect it primarily amplifies the far end of student satisfaction). In this case, the swing from those who were dissatisfied to those who were satisfied suggests that my new methods are pleasing the pleased much more than they are alienating the alienated, which is a change.


Poster sessions: A great way of establishing a scholarly ecosystem in the classroom

Posted: Dec 27, 2014 15:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


For a few years now, I’ve included a poster session component in my assessment. I began using them while I was chair of the Text Encoding Initiative, inspired in large part by the poster slam organised by my friend Susan Schreibman (now of Maynooth, then of the University of Maryland).

Until this year, I didn’t treat them that seriously: students were assessed on a pass/fail basis with the pass threshold being simple submission of a good faith effort; I didn’t really give any instructions on how to make posters (something traditionally humanists have not done); and I didn’t neither evaluated the presentations nor (most years) provided time for students to look at each others’ posters outside of the slam presentation itself.

This year, however, inspired largely by Inge Genee’s practice in her linguistics class, I stumbled upon a much better and educationally valuable way of using them. We did the slam as in previous years, but then we broke the class up into groups, each of which took turns circulating around the posters and asking questions of the presenters (because people want to see and hear from presenters in their own groups, we needed to redo the groups a few times).

The result was superb: students reported themselves to be thrilled by the opportunity to hear what their colleagues were up to, and certainly I heard a number of very intense discussions and Q&A sessions going on among clusters of students.

In retrospect, of course, all I did was take the poster component seriously. But what a result!

Tips and techniques

I have a couple of tips if you are interested in doing this:

  1. Announce to students early on that you are planning to do this and provide guidance on how to put posters together. Especially if your students are humanities majors, they are unlikely to have much experience with this so really basic instruction is required.
    1. Design matters like how to use Powerpoint or Impress to design the slide, tips on layout, size, use of fonts, images, and colour, for example;
    2. Questions of content and rhetoric—e.g. how to extract and summarise an argument for presentation on the poster; using different heading levels to indicate different levels of argumentative detail; how to use the Q&A period to supplement the argument.
    3. Practical questions like how and where to print them off as well as some estimated prices (if you are requiring paper posters); an alternative to this that we used is to book a computer lab and have students display a virtual poster on their workstation screen.
  2. Do a preliminary slam (here’s a model) at the beginning of the room in which students pitch their poster to their colleagues. This helps prime the subsequent discussion. Set a time limit of 1 minute for each presentation, but be flexible (especially with shy students). Some find the timed presentation extremely harrowing.
  3. Plan on several rounds of Q&A to allow students to see and hear from almost everybody. What we did was assign everybody a number from 1-5, an alphabetical group based on their first name, and a third in which they were grouped by seating rows. Several groups would then circulate at a time. This didn’t cover all permutations, but towards the end we let people switch groups if they really realised that somebody they really wanted to hear was always in the same group.

Dangerous bug in Moodle

Posted: Apr 19, 2014 12:04;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


Just discovered a dangerous bug in the Moodle essay question template.

About the essay question edit screen

When you write an essay question in Moodle, there are a couple of different boxes on the form:

The question goes in the top. Then you have the “General response” (something the student usually can see when the results are released). Then the “Response Template,” which can be used for including text you want to appear in the answer box as soon as the question loads for the student (e.g. text like “Type your essay here”). And finally a grader box, where you can include tips for the grader (this shows up on the grading screen right above the student’s answer.

The problem

The bug involves the Response Template box: text entered there is difficult to delete. In particular, the fact that this box is empty on the “edit question” screen ‘’‘doesn’t mean the previous content is not being shown to the student’‘’.

I discovered this by accident: I had accidentally entered the grader tips into the response template box. When I realised my mistake, I went back and deleted the content of all the template boxes (by either “cutting”—i.e. <ctl>+x—or copying—<ctl>-c and then back spacing the text away).

But when I previewed the questions, the response template content was still showing up in the answer box, ‘’‘even though it was not visible in the template form box on the edit screen’‘’.

The solution

To solve this you need to do the following:

  1. go to the top left corner of the response box (that is probably where your cursor will start if the box has no visible content)
  2. holding down <shift>, move your cursor to the right, the way you would if you wanted to highlight existing content.
  3. delete the “highlighted text” (in fact, you won’t see any and your cursor won’t travel because there is no text visible in the box) by hitting the <bacspace> key.
  4. type in a few spaces to provide new, meaningless, content for the response template.
  5. save the question.

When you preview the question, the content of the answer box should just be the spaces you entered. I assume (but haven’t checked) that you can then go in and remove the spaces.

Discovered this ust before an exam went live. Whew!


Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Posted: Feb 08, 2014 16:02;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


I just posted the slides for my lecture to the Department yesterday: Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Abstract: This lecture discusses some preliminary results from an ongoing research project on the use of digital technology and digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom. The goal of the project is to explore how these technologies and rhetorics can address common problems in the literature classroom: weak composition skills, lack of engagement, poor preparation. Initial, at this point still largely anecdotal, results suggest that the committed integration Web 2.0 technologies and rhetorics in the classroom can greatly improve outcomes in this area.

The lecture discusses how these techniques are used and some of the results we have seen.


Teaching prescriptive grammar hurts student writing

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


_Update: Actually, the chart I was really thinking of can be found here.

The other day in my grammar class, I mentioned an article that reviewed years’ worth of controlled studies into methods of composition structure. The article I was thinking about was George Hillocks, Jr., “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies,” American Journal of Education 93.1 (1984): 133–170.

The table I was thinking of in class is from page 157:

I’d overstated this conclusion a little: while teaching grammar was indeed the only thing people did that made student writing worse, I was wrong when I said it had a greater effect in absolute terms than any other method.

On the more general question of whether teaching grammar is effective, here is Hillock’s conclusion:

Grammar.-The study of traditional school grammer (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems (160).

Although you need to be careful, because the results are not alway independent, this conclusion has been reached time and time again in different contexts over at least the last forty years. One relatively recent study from an English context is: Dominic Wyse, “Grammar. For Writing? A Critical Review of Empirical Evidence,” British Journal of Educational Studies 49.4 (2001): 411–427.


Schuman is right that we need to get rid of the "College Paper." But wrong when she blames her students for not being able to write them. The "College Paper" has always been an exercise in futility

Posted: Dec 19, 2013 09:12;
Last Modified: Aug 20, 2015 13:08


Rebecca Schuman has recently argued in Slate that we should get rid of the College Paper. “Everybody hates college papers,” she writes. “Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them.”

Instructors, she suggests, hate them even more:

Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

If anything Schuman understates the case. The “college paper” as it is taught in North American universities really is a waste of everybody’s time. It is absolutely time that we got rid of it. Where she is wrong, however, is when she suggests that the problem with the essay is that her students are simply no longer up to writing them. The “college paper” has always been a problem, and students have never been good at them. It is an artificial form that experts and students have been trying to abolish almost from the moment it was first introduced into our universities.

A History of the American “college paper”

Before we get rid of the college paper, we should be clear on what it is we are talking about.

The kind of paper Schuman is describing—the kind of paper that students go through the motions of writing so that instructors can go through the motions of reading—is a relatively recent and very American development. It is a highly formal, template-based approach to argumentation that has its origins in “the daily theme,” a nineteenth-century writing exercise, introduced most influentially at Harvard in 1884, which led ultimately to the development of the famous “five paragraph essay.”

In fact, this form of writing was originally thought of as an introduction to essay writing rather than a form of the essay writing in its own right. In his influential 1853 textbook, A Practical Introduction to English Composition, Robert Armstrong drew a distinction between the “Essay”, “wherein in the writer is a liberty to follow his own inclination as to the arrangement of ideas,” and the “Theme”, “an exercise in which the subject is treated according to a Set of Heads methodically arranged.” The point of asking students to begin by writing the more restrictive theme, Armstrong suggested, was to prepare them for the greater work of actual essays: “It is desirable… that the pupil, before he attempts the writing of Essays, should be trained to the habits of consecutive thinking; and to this end the Theme, as experience has shown, is admirably adapted.”

Ultimately, however, the theme began to be seen as an end in and of itself. The format became increasingly rigid and the goal more and more about forcing students to think and express themselves in a highly standardized, tightly structured, way.

The clearest expression of this new attitude towards composition instruction is found in an astounding 1959 paper by Victor Pudlowski in the English Journal. Identified by Michelle Tremmel as one of the first explicit descriptions of the “five paragraph essay,” Pudlowski’s article explicitly privileges form over all other aspects of his students’ writing. He begins by discussing the “chaotic” attempts typical students produce when asked to write on common composition topics like their pets or their summer vacations. He then explains how he and his colleagues have developed an almost algorithmic template (“we call it a formula”) to force students into writing “well-organized compositions”:

1. We want the student to make one generalization (main point) concerning his composition topic.

2. Then he must reinforce his generalization with three supporting statements. All of this is done in the first (introductory) paragraph.

3. In the next three paragraphs (body), each supporting statement becomes a topic sentence. The first supporting statement is the topic sentence of the second paragraph. The second statement becomes the topic sentence of paragraph three. Supporting statement three is used as the topic sentence of the fourth paragraph.

4. Finally, topic sentences 1-4, when strung together, constitute the concluding paragraph. The generalization from the first paragraph becomes the topic sentence. The other topic sentences are used to support the generalization.

The point, as Pudlowski indicates, is to require students to organise their writing in a specific way. His method has nothing to do with improving their sense of what is interesting or important or to make them better writers in anything but an organizational sense. It does not “pretend to make unimaginative personalities interesting on pieces of paper.” And, as he freely admits, it is both “rather restrictive” and results in work that “tends to be repetitive.”

With his characteristic honesty, moreover, Pudlowski notes that his students, much like those Schuman is reporting on a half-century later, actually hate being assigned these kinds of papers.

The comments students make about the outline are revealing. Some complain: (1) ‘It ties me down too much’. (2) ‘It takes my style away’. (3) ‘I don’t like putting links in’. (4) ‘I can’t express myself’. (5) ‘I want to write my way’.”

But this, he suggests, is also partly the point:

There is, perhaps, a degree of truth to some of these remarks. Students are undoubtedly tied down when they must compose a composition consisting of a specific number of paragraphs. No longer are they able to blunder their way through an assignment by becoming verbose. They can’t shroud themselves in verbiage. This, among other things, is what a student means when he complains that his style is being destroyed. Young people simply do not like being forced to practice the techniques of the craft of writing.

We have always hated them

Almost all North American college students have been taught to write using some version of Pudlowski’s method (the same method is taught outside North America, but far less universally). Not every student is instructed that an essay must have five paragraphs (though experience in the classroom suggests that most students have been told this at some point) and very few seem to be taught his particularly rigid approach to linking the introduction, main body, and conclusion together. All, however, have been drilled on its core elements: an introduction that makes “one generalization (main point),” a main body that is focussed on providing supporting statements for this generalization, and a conclusion that repeats the generalization and supporting statements from the introduction.

The emphasis on this model in composition classes is so strong, indeed, that many students come to see it as being synonymous with writing itself. I have been asked by reporters for the campus newspaper where the thesis has to go in their news articles. And a common question among higher level students who’ve been asked to write longer papers is how many paragraphs of evidence they should include to fill up the extra pages. What was once seen as a training exercise for the more expressive genre of the essay is now usually taught as an end in itself.

Student complaints about the tediousness and irrelevance of theme-based essay writing could be dismissed perhaps if there was any evidence that the method improved their writing. But instructors too have been aware of the problems with this approach to essay writing for almost as long as they have been assigning such papers. In a lecture on [“The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status,”] read before the English Department of the Maine Teachers Association in October 1916, William Hawley Davis of Bowdoin College mentions some examples of similar negative student comment about theme-based instruction before going to examine “the very moderate effectiveness of what we are doing in English composition:

Few branches of educative work are attacked more frequently or more bitterly on the score of inefficiency. As a teacher of secondary school English I was always painfully conscious of its shortcomings; I fancy that all conscientious secondary-school teachers are quite as conscious of them as I was. I have observed that my associates in college teaching discharge quite effectively from year to year whatever responsibility rests upon them to be your mentors in this connection. I also observe, however, that the results of English composition work in colleges are likewise far from satisfactory. Only the totally uninitiated any longer suppose that the conversation and the personal or business correspondence of college students is either precise or elegant. At Harvard College, where, I believe, courses in English composition were first instituted and where able teachers have all along been organizing and conducting work in composition, a committee of the faculty is operating under a vote of the Board of Overseers, a vote which states that students “fail to write correct, coherent, and idiomatic English” and demands the formulation of some plan “for bettering the written and spoken English of Harvard students.” If other institutions in Maine and elsewhere are not confessing to themselves a similar condition, who shall say that it is not because they are in that respect far in the rear of Harvard ?

Indeed, the list of problems Davis saw in the writing of the college students of his day closely reflect those seen by Schuman in ours. Reading an advertisement for a composition textbook that was supported by endorsements from professors and students, Davis remarked with sadness on the obviously poor quality of the students’ contributions:

What pierced me through as a co-worker of the instructors of these enthusiastic youths was the crudity of their expression, their appalling awkwardness in using this tool of expression which no student can avoid practice in using and which each has such strong reasons for wanting to use well. Presumably these students had every intention of writing their best in these letters to the editors; presumably each had consciously or unconsciously used the paper as a model-and the paper itself was above reproach. But, you say, they were only students. How expressive that comment! We cannot take pride or even comfort in our position as teachers of a subject recognized everywhere as indispensable until our students write “correct, coherent, and idiomatic English.”

Fixing the college essay

The students Davis is writing about in 1916 belonged to the generation that fought World War I. Few if any are alive today. When modern professors complain about declining educational standards, the golden age they are comparing the current situation to, presumably, is the one Davis and his students inhabited.

But if his students were also making a hash of things then the problem may not lie with the students but the exercise. Indeed, since the 1960s, it has been difficult to find few if any professional educational researchers who are prepared to defend the “college theme” as an adequate approach to teaching composition. In a 2011 review of research since 1907 across thirty academic journals, Michelle Tremmel found three times as many articles arguing against the value of the theme as an exercise as those making the case for its utility.

Indeed, as Pudlowski’s students tried to tell him when he first codifed the five paragraph format back in 1959, this formulaic approach to teaching writing is completely counterproductive. The point of writing essays is to research, discover, and communicate to others the things that interest us most about culture, history, and philosophy. Focussing on how students write rather than what and why they are writing is a terrible way of training to students to engage in the kind of “thoughtful analysis” Schuman wishes saw more of. By breaking their style and forcing them to fit their ideas into a standardized template, what we are really doing is asking students to produce exactly the kind of turgid muck Schuman laments in her essay: “‘arguments’ that are at best tangentially related to the coursework… flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law.”

The real solution, as Davis argued almost a century ago, is to ask students to write in a context that provides both audience and motivation.

I believe that we do not adopt means ready to hand for making the study seem valuable and important to students. In ordinary composition work, theme writing, I am convinced that the cart is before the horse, or rather the cart is supposed to propel itself. “Write,” we tell the student, and we succeed but poorly in placing any impelling motive behind the effort. If we could first make sure of his desire to communicate something, and should then get him to communicate it appropriately in written composition, much of the labor and drudgery of composing would be unconsciously drawn by the tractor-desire to communicate. The preparation of assembly programs, news as to school and current events, school and community festivals and celebrations, especially those which are historically significant, social events, school notices and advertisements-all of these, skilfully made use of by teachers of English composition, would provide natural, concentrated, and highly effective training in writing. Debating has for some time made use of a powerful artificial incentive to industry and care in composition work; but the field of debating is narrow and by no means free from the perils attaching to intensive cultivation. A very efficient course in composition in Dartmouth College, I am informed, makes use of the journalistic motive throughout its work: the members of the course produce and offer for sale a monthly magazine. On a smaller scale but with, I believe, a satisfactory degree of success I am making use of a similar device at Bowdoin. Now the variety of opportunities for practical motivation of composition work is not so great in college as it is in the secondary school. Surely opportunities are available there in abundance for supplanting the vague motive of learning to avoid errors and to write effectively, with the very real motive of instructing or entertaining others on a given occasion. We cannot wisely neglect these opportunities.

The “college paper,” as it is traditionally taught in North American universities, simply does not provide this type of motivation or opportunity. Students write for a single, private, reader (their instructor) and they do so for a reward (grades) that they fear but do not respect. Far better is to ask students to write for real audiences on things they actually care about. To work on correcting and improving their real writing and argumentation rather than to force them to adopt an artificial style they will only ever use in the college classroom.

Davis, who seems to have been something of a Edwardian nerd, thought that technology might provide opportunities for promoting a suitable kind of publicly engaged writing. In his essay, he asks why Physicists get better equipped classrooms than English professors and suggests that composition instructors should not be afraid to ask for such cutting-edge equipment as “a practical duplicator, with supplies; stereoptican equipment, with projectoscope attachment for throwing on the screen a page of theme writing, etc.; a victorola and educational records… and a printing outfit.” The duplicating machine in particular, he considered essential to the task of letting students see what it is like to write for real audiences:

The uses of a duplicating machine are mainly two: first, to bring typical errors and defects-drawn, not from some strange and remote list in a textbook where they are necessarily mingled with much that is not typical, but from the pulsating product of a known fellow-student-to bring these errors or defects vividly before the entire class; and, secondly, to place good composition work where it will secure the only real reward ever given to good composition work-that of being read.

Davis’s technology may be a little dated, but his approach is as the contemporary as the “flipped” classroom: in his proposal, students learn to write meaningful work by sharing with and reacting to each others’ contributions. With modern technology, we are in a much better position than he ever was to address the kind of deficiencies he (and Schuman) point to in the traditional “paper.” Learning Management Systems allow us to create virtual textual communities in which students can publish and share their analysis and insight—learning, in the process, about why one writes as much as how. Blogging and microblogging applications allow students to participate in global conversations about the subjects they are studying, and, potentially, influence debate far more than was possible with even Davis’s largest and most elaborate printing press.

Not all students will be equally interested in (or capable of) participating in such larger discussions in ever class they take. Preliminary results from research we have been conducting on the use of blogging and other student-centred approaches to teaching composition, however, suggest that a majority do find composition instruction helpful when it begins by focuses on the students’ own interests and ideas and then helps them develop their explication in reaction to the responses to real audiences.

So in the end, Schuman is right about getting rid of the college “paper.” It really is hated by everybody. And students, on the whole, really do tend to produce some godawful examples.

But she is wrong when she argues that this is the students’ fault or that the solution is to give up on asking them to discuss their thinking in written form. The problem with the “paper” is not the students but the exercise itself. The traditional college paper is an artificial project whose flaws have been apparent from almost the moment it was first introduced into American higher education. We have long known what we need to do to get rid of it. The question is how long it will take before we all “finally admit defeat” and start replacing it with more meaningful assignments.


Using blogs in class

Posted: Dec 15, 2013 15:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


I’ve used blogs in most of my classes for the last seven or eight years. I find them to be a superb teaching tool, both as a way of teaching students to research, think, and write about the subjects they are studying and as a means of modulating my instruction to match a given class’s strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve been told by some colleagues that they’ve found it difficult to integrate blogs into their classes effectively. They’ve find it difficult to get decent participation, find the blogs to be not very informative, and wish that their students would engage with each other’s work more deeply.

I’ve not had any of these problems (well, perhaps the participation rate has been weaker that I might wish in one or two classes). On the whole, I find that students participate regularly in the assignment, that they are enthusiastic about it and understand its relevance to their learning, and are willing to engage with each other’s work. And, at their best, my students’ blogs contain some of their very best writing—in some cases far better than they hand in other contexts.

I believe that some of this success comes from the way I handle blogs in my classes. And, since I haven’t come across anybody who does exactly what I do, I thought I would explain my technique here so that others can use it.

1) Allow lots of freedom

Students in my classes are told that the blogs are a part of their contribution to the development of the community that is our class. For this reason, they are given no set topic, minimum length, or specific model or rubric they have to follow. They are told that the point of the blog is to participate in an ongoing discussion about the class material and that appropriate blogs make a good faith effort to be part of that conversation.

This means, for example, that a good blog could be an essay or a reflection on something that came up in the previous class, or it could be the draft of an essay. It could be a detailed discussion of some event in a given work or theme or question that ties several works in the class together, or it could be a link to a YouTube video.

As in real life, the important thing about blogging in my classes is that it is a way supporting the development of the community, and anything that does that is acceptable.

2) Mark pass/fail

If you don’t mandate any specific length or topic, then it becomes very hard to grade blogs on anything but a pass-fail basis. Is a link to a very relevant YouTube video more or less “excellent” (and hence deserving of an A) than an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of some point raised by a student in the previous day’s class?

For this reason, I grade blogs as pass-fail. If you post your blog on time, it looks like it was done in good faith, and it seems more-or-less relevant, you get a 1; if it isn’t all of these things, you get a 0.

Initially, this actually scares students: how will they know if I will consider a blog to made in good faith or more-or-less relevant before they submit? My answer to them is that they can’t. And so, as a result, I won’t give something a 0 (except for late postings) without prior warning.

What this means in practice is that I promise students that I will warn them if it begins to look like their blogs are not meeting the minimum standard for getting a grade and will only start taking marks away if there is no change in their behaviour after we have discussed that warning and what they can do to improve things. In actual practice, I have never, in the seven or eight years I have been doing this, had to warn a single student that their work was consistently off topic or failed to show that they made a reasonable effort.

Not all my students complete all their blogs on time (or even at all). And some students end up completely very few or none (though most students complete most blogs). But I have yet to have a student who has participated in the exercise post anything that looked like a less-than-good-faith effort. In my experience students either participate in good faith or they don’t participate.

3) Don’t sweat the comments

A common complaint I read from facuty who use blogs in class is that it is difficult to get students to comment on each other’s blogs.

I have the same problem, if by “comment” you mean “add comments using the comment function to another student’s blog posting.” In the course of a year, indeed, I suspect I would be lucky if we get five comments from students in that sense of the word.

If by “comment” you mean “read and respond to the other students’ postings in any way,” however, then I have no problem with getting students to comment on each other’s work. Instead of writing comments at the foot of each other’s postings, my students seem to prefer to comment on their colleagues’ work in the main body of their postings. As far as I can tell, most students begin their weekly blogging by reading the positing that have gone before. Certainly they commonly attempt to situate their own opinions in the context of the other students’ work.

Since the point of blogging is to encourage students to see themselves as belonging to a community that is exploring the topic of the course together, this type of response seems to me to be, if anything, preferrable to a simple comment.

4) Use the blogs in class

I make a point of reading the blogs before I go to class and referring to them in the course of our discussion. Indeed, increasingly, I structure our in-class time around what the students have written in their weekly postiings. I try to draw my questions from things they have said and, if the discussion begins to lag, I try to move it along by raising comments or arguments made by students in their blog postings.

Occasionally I do this by showing one or more blogs on the projector in our class. But more commonly I just do it by simply mentioning what I have read. As part of this process, I usually ask the author of the posting I am referring to to identify themselves for us—and then often take the opportunity to probe the question more deeply with them

Another way that I use the blogs in class is by encouraging students to post their essays and drafts to the blogging site. This encourages them to see this work too as being less about assessment and more about contributing to the community as a whole.

The important thing here is that this approach reinforces the communal nature of our endeavour: that research, writing, and learning are a community endeavour and that what we think about things is interesting and useful—even if only as a springboard for other’s ideas.

5) Keep them behind a firewall

I find the blogs my students write to be so interesting, I wish I could share them with the wider world. But having done some surveys, I know that the students themselves tend to prefer posting behind a firewall. Since the goal of the exercise is to encourage them to speak out, I do what seems to make my students most comfortable and keep them inside the walled-off section of our Learning Management System.


Timeline of the History of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Posted: Aug 17, 2013 13:08;
Last Modified: Aug 17, 2013 13:08


How to add a twitter feed to Moodle

Posted: Sep 12, 2012 15:09;
Last Modified: Sep 12, 2012 15:09


Like many Digital Humanists, I use twitter a lot: for communicating with colleagues, the general public, and my students. Like most users of twitter (certainly most academics, I suspect), my most common type of tweet is probably one in which I share a resource I have come across—a book, article, website, project, etc. Since I use our university’s Moodle installation to store resources for my students, it would be quite useful to be able to capture a Twitter feed inside our Moodle class space. This post shows how to do it.

Although Twitter appears intent on destroying its main raison d’etre and selling point—the fact it is easy to use and embed in third party applications—it has not quite succeeded yet. Until recently, sharing a Twitter feed was quite easy, since your user page was itself a feed. In the last year or so, as Twitter has worked at making their service less useful, they have gradually removed all direct access to postings as an RSS or ATOM feed. They have attempted to replicate this functionality through a custom widget they have created. Since this widget appears to want to gather information about the page it is on, however, it appears unable to accept password-protected URLs such as universities typically use for their LMS installations (at any rate, it would not accept the U of L’s Moodle URL).

Although it is apparently not advertised, it still is possible to grab Twitter feeds as ATOM or RSS through the URL. Using the URL. The URL and syntax for an RSS feed is where q= is followed by an appropriate term (see below). For ATOM the URL and syntax is

Here are some standard types of searchers you might want to do, from the excellent posting at The Sociable

Find tweets containing a word:
Find tweets from a user:
Find tweets to a user:
Find tweets referencing a user:
Find tweets containing a hashtag:
Combine any of the operators together:

It is also possible to go far beyond this: The sociable also has ways of combining these with geographic locations and regions!

Getting this feed into Moodle is quite simple:

  1. While in your course, turn on editing
  2. Scroll down to the “Add a block” control
  3. Select “Remote RSS Feed”
  4. Fill in the necessary fields and click on “Add feed” to point at custom search you want to use.
  5. Save everything.

Eventually, you should see your feed show up in the Remote Feed box you added to your course (I say eventually, because the default refresh time in Moodle is 30 minutes).


English 1900j (Fall 2012): Blogs

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 16:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2012 17:09


In this course you are expected to maintain a blog. Postings will be required from you most weeks. And every so often you are asked to review and/or comment on your blog postings and those of your class mates.


Why am I being asked to blog?

You are being asked to blog because experience shows that blogging is a good way of collecting your thoughts on a topic, keeping track of your intellectual development, discovering things you want to talk and write about, and building a community with your classmates. Blogs are helpful because they uncover trends in the interests and thoughts of the community, provide reference to interesting resources, and maintain a record of problems and solutions encountered throughout the year.

They are also useful because they encourage you to read with a computer nearby. One of the most important advantages of the internet age is the ease with which we can look things up. Blogging can be a way of intellectually profiting from and passing on things you have looked up during your reading.

What should I blog about?

What you write about in your blog is up to you. Sometimes, you may want to write about something you looked up about a book or author. Other times, you might want to discuss things you didn’t understand or difficult passages you think you can help others with. It might be about emotional responses you had to something we read; or a reflection on things discussed in class or in the hallway. Or a funny anecdote about something to do with the class. The only requirement is that most blog entries should be recognisably connected in some way to something in the current unit of our syllabus class (you’re allowed the occasional one that is not).

How am I being graded?

You are being graded on a pass-fail basis solely on whether you appear to have made a good faith effort to participate. In weeks where you write nothing or write blog entries that do not show what looks like a good faith effort to participate, you will receive a grade of 0%; blog entries that look like you made at least some good faith effort to participate in the discussion, will receive a grade of 100%.

Can I get bonus marks or redo a missed blog?

Blogs need to be done by the deadline to receive credit. Missed blogs cannot be made up. Everybody is allowed to miss one blog entry in the semester without penalty. This means, for example, that if there are eight blogs assigned in the course, you will receive 100% if you submit seven blogs on time. If you submit eight, you will receive extra credit for the extra blog.

What if I write more blogs than required?

If you right extra blogs in a given week, you will receive 1/2 bonus mark for every extra blog posting, up to a maximum of 1 extra bonus mark per week. Because these are for bonus marks, the standard by which your effort will be judged is a little higher: your entry must show real evidence of effort to receive a bonus mark.

What about comments?

You are not required to comment on blogs. If you do, this will be considered as evidence of participation.

Can I use material from my blog in my essay/unessay?

Yes. Your essay or unessays can reuse material from your blog.


Manual Grading of All Questions in Moodle 2.0

Posted: Mar 20, 2011 11:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

  1. From the main course page, select the quiz.
  2. From the quiz page, scroll down until you see the number of attempts made this should be a hyperlink.
  3. Select the hyperlink; you will now see a table of results. In the navigation block in the left hand frame select My home > My courses > [course name] > [Week or topic in which quiz is found] > Results > Manual Grading
  4. When you select this you are presented with the questions for manual grading. New in Moodle 2.0 is the option of hiding names and pictures; unfortunately this doesn’t affect the actual presentation of names under the “mark all instances” page.

How to do stuff in Moodle

Posted: Mar 15, 2011 12:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


Here’s a very good site at Furman University for common, specific tasks in Moodle:


Developing complex arguments

Posted: Nov 16, 2010 13:11;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


This is an exercise intended to give students techniques in developing complex literary theses. The problem it addresses is the tendency many students have to argue the obvious: either argue that the plot unfolds the way it does or that certain fairly obvious topics and themes are present in a work. It probably works best at the beginning of a unit on a given work, before any lectures or other directed discussion.

  1. Put the students in groups of 4 or 5.
  2. Ask the students for the most striking things they saw in the work: what it was about, any obvious themes, striking things about the characters, striking events or speeches. In a recent discussion of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night we came up with things like: the play takes place in a day; all the main characters show an addiction to something; the family seems to be very disfunctional; there is no resolution—they sound like they’ve been having this argument forever.
  3. Take a couple of these observations either simultaneously (assigned each to a different group) or collectively (each handled by all the groups in turn) and ask the group to argue the opposite of the observation—in the case of O’Neill’s play, for example, that it is wrong to see the play as taking place all in one day, or that the familiy isn’t disfunctional, or alcohol and drugs aren’t the problem in the story. In constructing their arguments, the groups need to observe the following rules:
    1. They can’t deny actual facts: so you can’t argue, for example, that the characters in Long Day’s Journey into Night are only hallucinating that it is a single day.
    2. They can’t use “might be” or “could be”: all arguments need to be demonstrable textually.
  4. As usual, go round the groups asking for arguments and evidence. Ask other groups for ways of expanding, improving, or contradicting proposals.

Developing Essay Topics in Class

Posted: Oct 07, 2010 17:10;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


This is a method I use with some success to develop essay topics collectively, in-class.

  1. Ask each student in the class to prepare in advance an essay topic that would be helpful to somebody else in the class.
  2. On the class day, divide the class into groups of four and ask each group to review all the members’ topics.
    1. Optional: before asking the class to discuss the topics amongst themselves, ask them about essay topics they have had in the past that have worked or not. Try to build a sense of what types of topics exist and what makes for a good (and bad) topic. If discussion falters, ask the groups to come up with something.
  3. After reviewing and discussing the topics amongst themselves, each group is to come up with a single essay topic for the rest of the class. This can be based on one of the four proposals, modified from a proposal, or completely new based on their discussions.
  4. Go through each of the groups in turn, asking to hear what their best topic is. Write up the topic on the board.
  5. After all groups have been heard from, go back through the topics, this time asking others to comment on strengths, weaknesses, ways of extending the topic, focussing it, etc.
  6. At the end of the exercise ask each group to nominate a secretary, whose job it is to mail a single topic to the class based on their group’s proposal and the commentary they received.

Active Pedagogy and University English

Posted: Aug 17, 2010 16:08;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


For the last four or five years, I’ve been investigating ways of changing my teaching.

Like most faculty of my generation, I learned to teach largely by imitation and guesswork. I mimicked the teachers and classes I enjoyed as a student and otherwise experimented with techniques and ideas grabbed magpie-like from various sources.

Early on as a teaching assistant at Yale, for example, I learned that it was wrong to approach a discussion section with too much worked out in advance. I’d begun there by approaching sections much like an essay, with a developed thesis and arguments; even after dropping the thesis, I still found planning too much tended to squelch discussion. I soon ended up more-or-less self-consciously modelling my discussion sections on the panel discussion on the old McNeil-Lehrer Newshour (Now PBS Newshour): like the reporters who hosted those discussions, I saw my role as being largely facilitating the discussion by summarising points made by one person in the discussion and handing them off to others for comment.

This worked well at Yale, and, as I was recently reminded during a PhD seminar in Digital Anglo-Saxon studies at Memorial, is probably generally a good approach with highly motivated students who already have a sense of how literary scholarship works.

It works less well with students who don’t have a natural sense for what is interesting and appropriate in critical discussions or who have yet to develop experience in that kind of debate. While the “guided reflection” style does still work well for me in some situations, I’ve been really disturbed in recent years by how many students seem to have a difficult time understanding what the point of a literary discussion is or why discussion should be central to a literary class. Unfortunately, since most of my instructors seemed to assume we did have this innate knowledge or experience, the models I’d copied until now were of little use in overcoming this problem: as much as I loved and benefited from these approaches as a student, it is clear that for a lot of the students I now teach, the method is more of a help than a hindrance.

Addressing the problem is something that has occupied my thought (or at least the time I devote to thinking about teaching) for quite some time. An initial improvement came when I discovered constructivist pedagogical theory. While what I was doing was broadly (and naively) speaking constructivist in intent, reading formally constructivist guides to theory and practice allowed me to think about what I was doing meta-pedagogically and caused me to introduce some new ideas to my practice that I hadn’t seen in my own instructors’ practice. The most significant of these was realising the difference between formative and summative evaluation. I quickly introduced assignments and exercises into my classes that were intended to function in a primarily formative way—often with grading that allowed students to include only their best or favourite pieces of work in their final grades. I started allowing students access to their (on-line) exams to eliminate question bias and anxiety. I tried very hard to introduce opportunities for self-testing and self-directed exercises and practice material. And I worked very hard at explaining the purpose behind various assignments.

While some of these changes introduced improvements in the class, I still did not feel I was getting the results I wanted. In particular, I still found a pervasive lack of comprehension concerning the importance of class discussion, class presentations, and essays in a literary class. And I still got complaints on student evaluations asking me to lecture more.

In the last year, I’ve been reading more about “Active” learning and teaching—really a kind of approach to constructive teaching as far as I can see. This is a type of pedagogy that focusses on methods for getting students to engage in “deep” learning, or learning that involves the students’ own curiosity and active participation in developing an understanding of the material they are studying. This involves attempting to keep the class focus on formative evaluation rather than summative. Focus too much on summative evaluation and you find that students begin to engage in “Surface” learning—engaging in strategies designed to maximise their grades rather than their knowledge. But it also goes beyond that and attempts to find ways of encouraging students to learn by internalising the lessons—bringing their previous knowledge and experience to bear on the subject or problem and learning by modifying, supplementing, or replacing their previous knowledge of the subject. Active learning involves students wanting to learn and seeing their learning as something internal to their development as human beings rather than participants in a course.

This is of course what I hoped (largely unsuccessfully) that my students were doing in the methods that I imitated from my professors. The new things for me in reading about explicit approaches to actually carrying this off successfully with my own students were the range of techniques and exercises that have been explicitly developed for encouraging this kind of learning in students and, in more practical works, the understanding of what (many) students do and don’t know when they come into the University classroom (as the child of Physicist and a faculty member myself as an adult, I’ve lived my entire life in and around universities and at least viscerally as a participant in scholarly discussion and debate—the result is that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the kind of uncertainty how academia works many Active Learning researchers suggest is endemic in the first year classroom).

Two sites and one book in particular have been extremely helpful to me over the course of the last year in developing new teaching techniques:

The two websites in particular have a wealth of “recipe-like” proposals for exercises one can use in the classroom in order to promote the kind of reflexive and deep learning all faculty ultimately want to produce. They can seem a little “teachery” to somebody like myself who, I am realising, is very much a pedagogical conservative. And I’m not 100% sure I would have liked having them in classes taught by the professors who taught me, since one of the things I loved about University was that it involved getting away from “worksheets” and starting to learn directly at (what I at least thought was) the academic coal face itself. But since most students nowadays seem to want to be “taught by” rather than “study with” their professors, perhaps the problem thus far has been worrying too much about what I’d have liked if I were still a student ;)


Digital Plagiarism

Posted: Dec 15, 2008 13:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


Essay and test management software

I have recently started using plagiarism detection software. Not so much for the ability to detect plagiarism as for the essay submission- and grading- management capabilities it offered. Years ago I moved all my examinations and tests from paper to course management software (WebCT originally, now Blackboard, and soon Moodle). I discovered in my first year using that software that simply delivering and correcting my tests on-line—i.e. without making any attempt to automate any aspect of the grading—reduced the time I spent marking exams by an immediate 50%: it turned out that I had been spending as much time handling tests (sorting, adding, copying grades, etc.) as I had marking them—more, in fact, if you included the in-class time lost to proctoring and returning corrected work to students.

I long wondered whether I could capture the same kind of efficiencies by automating my essay administration. Here too, I thought that I spent a lot of time handling paper rather than engaging with content. In this case, however, I was not sure I would be able to gain the same kind of time-saving. While I was sure that I could streamline my workflow, I was afraid that marking on screen might prove much less efficient than pen and paper—to the point perhaps of actually hurting the quality and speed of my essay-grading.

My experience this semester has been that my fears about lack of efficiency in the intellectual aspects of my correction were largely unfounded. And that my hopes for improving my administrative efficiency closely reflected the actual possibilities. The amount of time I spend handling a given set of essays has now dropped by approximately the expected 50%. While marking on screen is slower than marking with a pencil (a paper that used to take me 20 minutes to mark now will take 24 to 25 minutes), the difference is both smaller than I originally feared and more than compensated by the administrative time-savings, again including the class time freed up from the need to collect and redistribute papers.

Detecting plagiarism

Although I use it primarily for essay management, plagiarism dedection software such as turnitin, the system I use, was, of course, originally designed to detect plagiarism—which means that I too can use it to check my students’ originality. The developers remind users that a lack of originality is not the same thing as plagiarism: plagiarism is a specific type of lack of originality and even good pieces of work will have numerous passages in common with other texts in the software’s database. Obvious examples of this include quotations from works under discussion and bibliographic entries. It is also quite common to see the occasional short phrase or clause flagged in otherwise original work, especially at the beginning of paragraphs or in passages introducing or linking quotations. Presumably there are only so many ways of saying “In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes…”. In shorter papers, in fact, it is not unusual to see non-plagiarised student papers with as much as 30%-40% of their content flagged initially as being as “non-original.”

Some students, however, actually do plagiarise—which I understand to mean the use of arguments, examples, or words of another as if they were one’s own. When marking by hand, I’ve generally considered this to be a relatively small problem. In twelve years at the University of Lethbridge, I’ve caught probably less than ten students whose work was significantly plagiarised. Obviously I’ve never been able to say whether this was because my methods for discovering such work were missing essays by more successful plagiarists or because the problem really wasn’t that significant. Using plagiarism detection software gave me the opportunity of checking how well I had been doing catching plagiarists the old fashioned way, when I was marking by hand.

To the extent that one semesters’ data is a sufficient sample, my preliminary conclusions are that the problem of plagiarism, at least in my classes, seems to be more-or-less as insignificant as I thought it was when I graded by hand, and that my old method of discovering plagiarism (looking into things when a paper didn’t seem quite “right”) seemed to work.1 This past semester, I caught two people plagiarising. But neither of them had particularly high unoriginality scores: in both cases, I discovered the plagiarism after something in their essays seemed strange to me and caused me to go through originality reports turnitin provides on each essay more carefully. I then went through the reports for every essay submitted by that class (a total of almost 200), to see if I had missed any essays that turnitin’s reports suggested might be plagiarised. None of the others showed the same kind of suspicious content that had led me to suspect the two I caught. So for me, at least, the “sniff test” remains apparently reliable.

How software improves on previous methods of detecting plagiarism

Even though it turns out that I apparently can still rely on my ability to discover plagiarism intuitively, there are two things about plagiarism detection software that do mark an improvement over previous methods of identifying such problems by hand. The first is how quickly such software lets instructors test their hunches. In the two cases I caught this semester, confirming my hunch took less than a minute: I simply clicked on the originality report and compared the highlighted passages until I discovered a couple that were clearly copied by the students without ackowledgement in ways that went beyond reasonable use, unconscious error, or unrealised intellectual debt. Working by hand would have required me to Googling specific phrases from the paper one after the other and/or go to the library and to find a print source for the offending passages. In the past it has often taken me hours to make a reasonable case against even quite obvious examples of plagiarism.

The second improvement brought on by plagiarism detection software lies in the type of misuse of sources it uncovers. Although I became suspicious about the originality of the two papers I caught this semester on my own rather than through the software’s originality report, the plagiarism I uncovered from the originality report was in both cases quite different from anything I have seen in the past. Instead of the wholesale copying from one or two sources I used to see occasionally when I marked by hand, the plagiarism I found this year with turnitin involved the much more subtle use of unacknowledged passages, quotations, and argument and at key moments in the students’ papers. In the old days, my students used to plagiarise with a shovel; these students were plagiarising with a scalpel. I’m not completely sure I would have been able to find the sources for at least some of this unacknowledged debt if I had been looking by hand.

A new kind of plagiarism

This is where my title comes in. It is of course entirely possible that students always have plagiarised in this way and that I (and many of my colleagues) simply have missed it because it is so hard to spot by hand. But I think that the plagiarism turnitin caught in these two essays this semester actually may represent a new kind of problem involving the misappropriation of sources in student work—a problem that has different origins, and may even involve more examples of honest mistake, than we used to see when students had to go to the library to steal their material. Having interviewed a number of students in the course of the semester, I am in fact fairly firmly convinced that what turnitin found is a symptom of new problems in genre and research methodology that are particularly to the current generation of students—students who are undergoing their intellectual maturation as young adults in a digital culture that is quite different from that of even five years ago. What they were doing was still culpable—the great majority of my students were able to avoid misappropriating other peoples’ ideas in their essays. But new technologies, genres, and student approaches to note-taking are making it easier for members of the current generation to “fall into” plagiarism without meaning to in ways that previous generations of students would not. In the old days, you had to positively decide to plagiarise an essay by buying one off a friend or going to the library and actually typing text out that you were planning to present as your own. Nowadays, I suspect, students who plagiarise the way my two students did this semester do so because they haven’t taken steps to prevent it from happening.

Digital students, the essay, and the blog

This first thing to realise about how our students approach our assignments has to do with genre. For most (pre-digital) university instructors, the essay is self-evidently the way one engages with humanistic intellectual problems. It is what we were taught in school and practiced at university. But more importantly, it was almost exclusively how argument and debate were conducted in the larger society. The important issues of the day were discussed in magazines and newspapers by journalists whose opinion pieces were also more-or-less similar to the type of work students were asked to do at the university: reasoned, original, and polished pieces of writing in which a single author demonstrated his or her competence by the focussed selection of argument and supporting evidence. The value of a good essay—at the university or in the newspaper—lay in the author’s ability to digest arguments and evidence and make it his or her own: find and assimilate the most important material into an original argument that taught the reader a new way of understanding the information and opinions of others.

For most contemporary students, however, the essay is neither the only nor the most obviously appropriate way of engaging with the world of ideas, politics, and culture. Far more common, certainly numerically and, increasingly, in influence, is the blog—and making a good blog can often involve skills that are anathemetic to the traditional essay. While it is possible to publish essays using blog software, the point of blogs, increasingly, is less to digest facts and arguments than to accumulate and react to them. Political blogs—like the Ed Morrisey’s Captain’s Quarters (now at Hot Air, or Dan Froomkin’s (Whitehouse Watch)—tend to consist of collections of material from other on-line sources interspaced with opinion. The skill an accomplished blogger brings to this type of material lies in the ability to select and organise these quotations. A good blog, unlike a good essay, builds its argument and topic through the artful arrangement and excerpting of usually verbatim material passages from other people’s work—in much the same way that some types of music are based on the original use and combination of digitised sound samples from earlier recordings.

In other forums this method of “argument by quotation” is the norm: every video worth anything on YouTube has at least one response—a companion video where somebody else picks up on what the original contributor has done and answers back, usually with generous visual or verbal quotation. Professional examples include the various Barack Obama tributes that were a defining feature of the 2008 Democratic Primary in the U.S. (examples include the work of Obama Girl= and ). But amateur examples are also extremely common—as was the case with the heavy amateur response to the question of whether the “(lonelyGirl15)” series of 2005 was actually a professional production.

The real evidence of the evolving distinction between the essay and the blog as methods of argumentation and literary engagement, however, can be seen in the blogs that newspapers are increasingly asking their traditional opinion columnists to write. It is no longer enough to write essays about the news, though the continued existence and popularity of the (on-line and paper) newspaper column shows that there is still an important role for this kind of work. Newspapers (and presumably their readers) also now want columnists to document the process by which they gather the material they write about—creating a second channel in which they accumulate and react to facts and opinions alongside their more traditional essays. Among the older journalists, an example of this is Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times, who supplements his column with a blog and other interactive material about the subjects he feels most passionate about. In his column he digests evidence and makes arguments; in his blog he accumulates the raw material he uses to write his columns and presents it to others as part of a process of sharing his outrage.

In the case of our students, the problem this generic difference between the blog and the essay causes is magnified by the way they conduct their research. On the basis of my interviews, it appears to me that most of my first year students now conduct their research and compile their notes primarily by searching the Internet, and, when they find an interesting site, copying and pasting large sections of verbatim quotation into their word processor. Often they include the URL of this material with the quotations; but because you can always find the source of a passage you are quoting from the Internet, it is easy for them to get sloppy. Once this accumulation of material is complete, they then start to add their own contribution to the collection, moving the passages they have collected around and interspacing them with their opinions, arguments, and transitions.

This is, of course, how bloggers, not essayists, work. Unfortunately, since we are asking them to write essays, the result if they are not careful is something that belongs to neither genre: it is not a good blog, because it is not spontaneous, dynamic, or interactive enough; and it is not a good traditional essay, because it is more pastiche than an original piece of writing that takes its reader in an new direction. The best students working this way do in the end manage to overcome the generic mismatch between their method of research and their ultimate output, producing something that is more controlled and intellectually original than a blog. But less good students, or good students working under mid- or end-of-term pressure, are almost unavoidably leaving themselves open to producing work that is, in a traditional sense at least, plagiarised—by forgetting to distinguish, perhaps even losing track of the distinction, between their own comments and opinions and those of others, or by collecting and responding exclusively to passages mentioned in the work of others rather than finding new and original passages that support their particular arguments.

This is still plagiarism: it is no more acceptable to misrepresent the words and ideas of others as your own in the blogging world as it is in the world of the traditional essay. And in fact it is more invidious that the older style of plagiarism that involved copying large chunks out of other people’s work: in the new, digital plagiarism, the unackowledged debt tends to come in the few places that really matter in a good essay: the interesting thesis, the bold transition, the surprising piece of evidence that make the work worth reading. Because it is so closely tied to new genres and research methods, however, this type of plagiarism may also have as much a cultural as a “criminal” motivation. In preventing it, instructors will need to take into account the now quite different ways of working and understanding intellectual argument that the current generation of students bring with them into the classroom.

Advice to the Digital Essayist

So how can the contemporary student avoid becoming a Digital Plagiarist?

The first thing to do is realise the difference between the essay and the blog. When you write an essay, your reader is interested in your ability to digest facts and arguments and set your own argumentative agenda. A blog that did not allow itself to be driven by current events, incidents, and arguments in its field of endeavour—whether this is an event in the blogger’s personal life or the ebb and flow of an election campaign—would not be much of a blog. Essays are not bound by this constraint, however: they can be about things nobody is talking about and make arguments that don’t respond to anybody. Even when, as is more normal and probably better, essays do engage with previous arguments and topics that are of some debate, the expectation is that the essayist will digest this evidence and these opinions and shape the result in ways that point the reader in new directions—not primarily to new sources, but rather to new claims and ideas that are not yet part of the current discourse.

The second thing to realise is just how dangerous the approach many students take to note-taking is in terms of inviting charges of plagiarism. In a world of Google, where text is data that can be found, aggregated, copied, and reworked with the greatest of ease, it is of course very tempting to take notes by quotation. When people worked with paper, pens, and typewriters, quotation was more difficult and time-consuming: when you had to type out quotations by hand, writing summaries and notes was far quicker. Nowadays, it is much easier and less time-consuming to quote something than it is to take notes: when you find an interesting point in an on-line source, it uses far fewer keystrokes (and less intellectual effort) to highlight, copy, and paste the actual verbatim text of the source in a file than it does to turn to the keyboard and compose a summary statement or not. And if you are used to reading blogs, you know that this method can be used to summarise even quote long and complex arguments.

There are two problems, however. The first is that this method encourages you to write like a blogger rather than an essayist: your notes are set up in a way that makes it easier to write around your quotations (linking, organising, and responding to them) than to digest what they are saying and produce a new argument that takes your reader in unexpected directions.

The second problem is that it is almost inevitable that you will end up accidentally incorporating the words and ideas of your sources in your essay without acknowledgement. It is easy, in reworking your material, to drop a set of quotation marks, or to start paraphrasing something and then end up editing it back into an almost verbatim quotation—without realising what you’ve done. And it is even easier to get sloppy in your initial note-taking—forgetting to put quotation marks around passages you’ve copied or losing the source URL. Once you add your own material to this collection of quotations in the file that will eventually become your essay, you will discover that it is almost impossible to remember or distinguish between what you have added and what you got from somebody else.

One way of solving this is to change the way you take notes, doing less quoting and more summarising. Doing this might even help you improve the originality of your essays by forcing you to internalise your evidence and arguments. But cutting and pasting from digital sources is so easy that you are unlikely ever to stop doing it completely—and even if your do, you are very likely to run into trouble again the moment you face the pressure of multiple competing deadlines.

A better approach is to develop protocols and practices that help you reduce the chances that your research method will cause you to commit unintentional plagiarism. In other words to find a way of working that allows you to keep doing the most important part of what you currently do (and are going to continue to do no matter what your instructors say), but in a fashion that won’t lead you almost unavoidably into plagiarising from your sources at some point in your career.

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do in this regard is to establish a barrier between your research and your essay. In a blog, building your argument around long passages of text that you have cut and pasted into your own document is normal and accepted; in essay writing it isn’t. So when you come to write an essay, create two (or more) files: one for the copying and pasting you do as part of your research (or even better, one file for each source from which you copy and paste or make notes), and, most importantly, a separate file for writing your essay. In maintaining this separate file for you essays, you should establish a rule that nothing in this file is to be copied directly from an outside source. If you find something interesting in your research, you should copy this material into a research file; only if you decide to use it in your essay should should you copy it from your research file into your essay file.In other words, your essay file is focussed on your work: in that file, the words and ideas of others appear only when you need them to support your already existing arguments.

An even stricter way of doing this is to establish a rule that nothing is ever pasted into your essay file: if you want to quote a passage in your text, you can decide that you will only type it out by hand. This has the advantage of discouraging you from over-quoting or building your essay around the words of others—something that is fine in a blog, but bad in an essay. If this rule sounds too austere and difficult to enforce, at least make it a rule that you paste nothing into you essay before you have composed the surrounding material—i.e. the paragraph in which the passage is to appear and the sentence that is supposed to introduce it. Many professional essayists, especially those who learned to write before there were word-processors, actually leave examples and supporting quotations out of their earliest drafts—using place holders like “{{put long quotation from p35 here}}” to represent the material they are planning to quote until they have their basic argument down.

Another thing you could try is finding digital tools that will make your current copy-and-paste approach to note-taking more valuable and less dangerous. In the pre-digital era, students often took notes on note cards or in small notebooks. They would read a source in the library with a note card or notebook in front of them. They would begin by writing basic bibliographic information on this card or notebook. Then, when they read something interesting, they would write a note on the card or in the notebook, quoting the source if they thought the wording was particularly noteworthy or apt. By the time they came to write their essays, they would have stacks of cards or a series of notebooks, one dedicated to each work or idea.

There are several ways of replicating (and improving on) this method digitally. One way is to use new word-processor files for each source: every time you discover a new source, start a new file in your word-processor, recording the basic information you need to find the source again (URL, title, author, etc.). Then start pasting in your quotations and making your notes in this file. When you are finished you give your file a descriptive name that will help you remember where it came from and save it.

Using your word-processor for this method will be cumbersome (you’ll spend a lot of time opening and closing files), difficult to use when you come to write (in a major essay you might end up with tens of files open on your desktop alongside the new file for your essay), and difficult to oversee (unless you have an excellent naming system, you will end up with a collection of research files with cryptic sounding names of which you have forgotten the significance). And if you can’t remember the specific source of a given quotation or fact, it will be hard to find later without special tools or opening and closing each file.

But other tools exist that allow you to implement this basic method more easily. Citation managers such as Endnote or Refworks, for example, tie notes to bibliographic entries. If you decide to try one of these, you start your entry for a new source (i.e. the equivalent of your paper notebook or note card) by entering it in the bibliographic software (This will also allow you to produce correctly formatted bibliographies and work cited lists quickly and automatically later on when you are ready to hand in your paper in). You then use the “notes” section as the place for pasting quotations and adding comments and notes that you might want to reuse in your paper. There is no problem with naming files (your notes are all stored under the relevant bibliographic entry in a single database), with moving between sources (you call up the each source by the bibliographic reference), and in most cases you will be able to use a built in search function to find passages in your notes if you forget which particular work you read them in.

Bibliographic databases and citation managers are great if all your notes revolve around material from text-based sources. But what if you also need to record observations, evidence, interviews, and the like that cannot easily be tied to specific references? In this case, the best tool may be a private wiki—for example at PbWiki (or if you are computer literate, and have access to a server, a private installation of MediaWiki, the software that runs the Wikipedia).

We tend to think of wikis as being primarily media for the new type of writing that characterises collaborative web applications like the Wikipedia or Facebook. In actual fact, however, wikis have a surprising amount in common with the notebooks or stacks of note cards students used to bring with them to the library. Unlike an entry in citation management software, wiki entry pages are largely free-form space on which you can record arbitrary types of information—a recipe, an image (more accurately a link to an image rather than the image itself), pasted text, bibliographic information, tables of numerical data, and your own annotations and comments on any of the above. As with an index card, you can return to your entry whenever you want in order to add or erase things (though a wiki entry, unlike an index card preserves all your original material as well), or let others comment on. And as with note cards you can shuffle and arrange them in various different ways depending on your needs—using the category feature, you can create groupings that collect all the pages you want to use in a given essay, or that refer to a specific source, or involve a particular topic. Of course unlike notes cards which had to be sorted physically, wiki entries can simultaneously belong to more than one grouping; and because they are stored in a database, you can search your wiki automatically, looking for passages and ideas even if you don’t remember where you saw them.

However you decide to solve this problem, the most important thing is to avoid the habit which is most likely to lead you into (unintentionally) plagiarising from your sources: starting an essay by copying and pasting large passages of direct quotation into the file that you ultimately intend to submit to your instructor. In an essay, unlike a blog, the point is to hear what you have to say.

1 I now take back the claim that this is as insignificant as I thought. In the year-end papers, I found a surprisingly large number of papers with plagiarised passaged in them (five or six out of sixty with perhaps one or two doubtful cases). At the same time, a paper-by-paper review of the originality reports still seems to confirm that one can rely on one’s hunches—I’ve not yet found plagiarism in a paper that didn’t seem right as I was reading it. The larger number of hits is coming from the ability turnitin is giving me to check my hunches more easily and quickly, The pattern I describe above of writing between large quotations and paraphrases still seems to be holding true, however—as is the age or generational difference: my senior students are not nearly as likely to write essays like this.


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