Call for Collaborators: The Open Digital Archaeology Textbook Environment (ODATE)

Call for Collaborators: The Open Digital Archaeology Textbook Environment (ODATE)

The Open Digital Archaeology Textbook Environment is a collaborative writing project led by myself, Neha Gupta, Michael Carter, and Beth Compton. (See earlier posts on this project here).  We recognize that this is a pretty big topic to tackle. We would like to invite friends and allies to become co-authors with us. Contact us by Jan 31st; see below.

Here is the current live draft of the textbook. It is, like all live-written openly accessible texts, a thing in the process of becoming, replete with warts, errors, clunky phrasing, and odd memos-to-self. I’m always quietly terrified to share work in progress, but I firmly believe in both the pedagogical and collegial value of such endeavours. While our progress has been a bit slower than one might’ve liked, here is where we currently stand:

  1. We’ve got the framework set up to allow open review and collaboration via the Hypothes.is web annotation framework and the use of Github and gh-pages to serve up the book
  2. The book is written in the bookdown framework with R Markdown and so can have actionable code within it, should the need arise
  3. This also has the happy effect of making collaboration open and transparent (although not necessarily easy)
  4. The DHBox computational environment has been set up and is running on Carleton’s servers. It’s currently behind a firewall, but that’ll be changing at some point during this term (you can road-test things on DHBox)
  5. We are customizing it to add QGIS and VSFM and some other bits and bobs that’d be useful for archaeologists. Suggestions welcome
  6. We ran a test of the DHBox this past summer with 60 students. My gut feeling is that not only did this make teaching easier and keep all the students on the same page, but the students also came away with a better ability to roll with whatever their own computers threw at them.
  7. Of six projected chapters, chapter one is in pretty good – though rough – shape

So, while the majority of this book is being written by Graham, Gupta, Carter and Compton, we know that we are leaving a great deal of material un-discussed. We would be delighted to consider additions to ODATE, if you have particular expertise that you would like to share. As you can see, many sections in this work have yet to be written, and so we would be happy to consider contributions aimed there as well. Keep in mind that we are writing for an introductory audience (who may or may not have foundational digital literacy skills) and that we are writing for a linux-based environment. Whether you are an academic, a professional archaeologist, a graduate student, or a friend of archaeology more generally, we’d be delighted to hear from you.

Please write to Shawn at shawn dot graham at carleton dot ca to discuss your idea and how it might fit into the overall arc of ODATE by January 31st 2018. The primary authors will discuss whether or not to invite a full draft. A full draft will need to be submitted by March 15th 2018. We will then offer feedback. The piece will go up on this draft site by the end of the month, whereupon it will enjoy the same open review as the other parts. Accepted contributors will be listed as full authors, eg ‘Graham, Gupta, Carter, Compton, YOUR NAME, 2018 The Open Digital Archaeology Textbook Environment, eCampusOntario…..

For help on how to fork, edit, make pull requests and so on, please see this repo

 

Featured Image: “My Life Through a Lens”, bamagal, Unsplash

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Letter to a young scholar

Letter to a young scholar

I sometimes receive notes from undergrads or other folks wondering what advice I can give about studying to become X… I thought I’d share the response I wrote this morning.

Hi ____

Thank you for your note, and your query about how I got here and various options for your own path. I’ll tell you first about my own journey. Don’t let that part put you off, but I want you to have your eyes open as you consider your options.

My own personal journey is perhaps not a template to follow: I went to the UK for grad school in Roman archaeology. At the end of that process, I was teaching random courses at universities across the south east of england, piecing together enough money to keep me going, living out of a rucksack. I eventually got tired of that and came back to Canada where I was, for all intents and purposes, unemployable in Canadian archaeology. I started my own businesses, and also supply taught at a local high school, to make ends meet (see this: https://medium.com/@electricarchaeo/on-teaching-high-school-109cb75caedc ). Eventually I got a position working online for a for-profit “university” in the US, which gave me a bit of stability. Eventually, I saw the job advert for a position in ‘digital humanities’ at Carleton, and here I am.

So my journey involved transforming myself from frankly a second rate Roman epigraphist into a digital humanities scholar and digital archaeologist. I benefited from being in the right place at the right time, having made a bit of a name for myself by blogging my continuing research throughout that period. There was a lot of luck involved.

Between December 2002, when I received my PhD, and July 2010, when I started at Carleton, I had precisely 2 interviews for full-time academic postings.

Now, the keys to getting the job at Carleton were that when I returned to Canada, I had to work extremely hard to make connections with people in the community I wanted to be a part of. Conferences, open research online. Contract archaeology wanted nothing to do with me because I had not gained enough experience of field archaeology in the UK to be employable in Canada – AND Canadian archaeology uses different approaches than european stuff.

*my advice, for what it’s worth*

  • I’d have still gone to the UK for grad school, but I would not necessarily jump into doing a PhD. Few places in this world are better for archaeology, ancient civ, etc. An MA opens opportunities; a PhD can be perceived as narrowing your range of options – you have to work hard to convince people of the truth of the phd, that it makes you better in the long run for a wide variety of things.
  • I knew I didn’t want to go to a Canadian school, because I wanted to jump right into my interests. A UK school allows that; Canadian schools demand a whole bunch of coursework first.
  • Follow the money: go where they really want you. If a school offers some sort of scholarship, I’d take it. My 1 year of MA in the UK doubled my entire debt to that point.
  • Do an MA that fills you with joy – it’s one of the few times in this life where you can. An MA of any stripe is all to the good, so don’t fall into the instrumentalist trap of picking something that you think someone ‘else’ (however construed) would approve.
  • A classical MA, of whatever stripe, can be a very good foundation for a wide variety of paths in this life. Don’t worry necessarily about the job at the end of it. Classical folks in my experience tend to be some of the most creative and lateral thinking people I’ve ever met.
  • Be aware that such things can take a toll on your mental health. Make plans to keep your support networks, your friendships, intact
  • I’d have focussed on getting more fieldwork. That said, archaeology suffers from gendered labour issues such that it is largely men in positions of power. So if you plan on trying for an archaeological career in fieldwork, know that this is an issue.
  • Classics departments are greying, but they are not necessarily hiring to replace retirement.
  • Work constantly on your digital literacy: skills, trends, research methods, questions, theories
  • Develop a scholarly online presence
  • Lurk on twitter, follow scholars whose work fills you with wonder, or whom you admire. Follow a couple you loathe, for a contrary view.

You might also wish to frame your interests a bit more broadly, and consider in what other contexts you can engage with Greek and Roman civ – museums, digital work, community, public, game studies, and so on.

Best wishes,

Shawn

(cover image, Daria Nepriakhinia, Unsplash)

Crafting Digital History Open Access Version Summer 2017

Crafting Digital History Open Access Version Summer 2017

I’m teaching Crafting Digital History this summer (a course whose development was funded via eCampusOntario to whom I am grateful). It’s currently at its max enrolment – 60 students. But if you’d like to follow along, I have created a Slack for you and your fellow travellers; you can jump down the rabbit hole at https://hist3814-oa.glitch.me/

The course uses an instance of the DHBox  as our laboratory. I didn’t want to be doing tech support for all the myriad computer setups I might encounter, so thanks to Andrew Pullin and Doug Howe of Carleton’s Computer Science Department, and Steve Zweible of CUNY, we have our own version! Open Access participants should go to the main DHBox website, http://dhbox.org/ click ‘sign up’, and select the 1 month version. You should then be able to follow along without issue.

I’ll try to be active in that space at least once per day; feel free to ask questions and to connect with one another! Last time I did this, we had a core group of about 12 people. I really enjoyed learning from them. If the numbers are right, I might do a couple of google hangouts while I’m at it. Digital history – the nitty gritty of it – can drive you nuts as you try to learn it. The worst thing you can do is to try to suffer through it on your own. DigHist is at its best when it’s collaborative. So why not join us?

 

(Featured image by Andrew Neel)

Re-crafting Crafting Digital History

Re-crafting Crafting Digital History

My Crafting Digital History course runs this summer. The reason for that is, I’m obliged (because of funding) to run it every calendar year, but of course, calendar years != academic years. I last ran it in the winter of 2016, and then promptly went on sabbatical. To make the calendar year square with the academic year, my only option then is to run it again in the summer term immediately after finishing my sabbatical.

All of this is to say, I find myself having to compress the course from 13 weeks down to 6 weeks. It was a pretty damned ambitious course for 13 weeks, designed to encourage students to learn a lot, to push a lot, to explore a lot, and to find value in the fail that will dog them. Unfortunately, my institution has done a lot to convince students that online courses = talking heads & multiple choice questions, so my fail-in-public schtick was always going to be a hard sell. And I also overwhelmed students, paradoxically, with too much choice and too much guidance! My attrition rates were pretty bad. 60 started, 25 finished. 20 dropped the first week when it became apparent that it wasn’t a multiple choice course, and another ten the following week when they decided to check in and discovered the same. I wrote to students frequently, encouraging them to get cracking, I held video chats, I was present in Slack every minute of every day (well, nearly every evening), I stood on my head and whistled glory hallelujah, but some students (of those who ultimately dropped it) didn’t turn up until the 10th week. Those who completed the work did amazing stuff… but only one decided to keep her domain after the year’s worth of hosting I paid for expired.

So, mea culpa certainly in some regards, but there’s something about horses & water that’s germane here…

Anyway, I’m now rebuilding the course. I’ve been reading Andrew Goldstone’s thoughts on teaching DH and Lincoln Mullen’s reflections on the same and I think I agree. I’ve been too hung up on the tech, and dealing with the small-c conservatism of History students about what ‘History’ is supposed to be about (“There’s a lot of deprogramming I have to do”, I remarked to a colleague. He responded, “and for the students, too!”). This time around, I’m going to spend less time on actual tech and tools, and more on cultivating the habits of mind that will enable the student to seek out the appropriate tool for the question they have. How to ask questions of more technically-minded folks. Where to find answers. They’re still going to learn some basic data literacy skills, but I’m thinking that with careful use of Hypothes.is I can make this online course of some 50 (and climbing) students feel more like a seminar, more like a community, which I hope will alleviate some of the attrition rate. I’m privileged in that I’m now at a point in my career where attrition isn’t the awful will-I-lose-my-job bogeyman it was before. If this work, I’ll let y’all know so we can move forward together.

The other thing that the reworked class needs to do better is to narrow the universe of options. Before, I encouraged students to hunt datasets of interest down, or generate one themselves. Madness. This time around, we’ll work with one dataset and one dataset only: M.H. Beals’s ‘Scissors and Paste’ database of British newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries.  The other thing I’ll be doing is weaving a continuing discussion around, as Lincoln puts it,

on how the historical sources of data that we are using were created and … how historians have used data analysis. That’s in addition to methodological readings which also deal with questions of historical thinking with data.

Here’s how I think it’ll go down:

  • domains of their own on which they’ll install WordPress and blog weekly about their fails, questions, and triumphs (a fail-blog, flog? see Mark Sample)
  • a github repo in which they’ll keep their actual notes working with their own machines. Copies of their terminal histories, that sort of thing.
  • hypothesis account with which they’ll annotate the readings, each other’s blogs, and notebooks
  • a final project visualizing some interesting pattern they’ve found in the database, which they’ll mount via their blog (or other tool courtesy of cpanel on their domain, if they’re feeling ambitious).
  • no more Slack. It worked great for some students, but for most, it was too far removed from what they were expecting. Pick your battles.

Tech topics for each week:

  1. How to read collaboratively. Setting up a domain of one’s own. Setting up a blog.
  2. Basic git. Setting up a research notebook repo (markdown). Newspaper database into CSVWTF. Data structures.
  3. Wget. Curl. Grabbing stuff from an API. TEI/XML.
  4. Regex. Networks.
  5. Voyant. Topic Model Gui Tool. Possibly simple webmapping by repurposing Matrix’s DAEA
  6. one week’s grace to recover. I’d love to teach them TWARC, twitter-bots, so many other things, so maybe I’ll do some small tutorials as time/interests permit.

As for readings, I’m putting that list together. But I’d be curious to hear what you recommend, or your thoughts on my plan.

What I did in the past, it was well thought out and well structured (ok, more or less) but it foundered on the rocks of experience. Or rather, it worked well for the 25 who got it, but it needs to be better to reach the other 35.

(By the way – I ran an open access version of the course last time, with its own Slack. That group of about a dozen interested individuals from around the world were great! So I’ll be doing that again as well. If you’re not at Carleton but are a student at an Ontarian university, you can also sign up for credit via eCampusOntario. If you’re not an Ontarian university but you’d still like to do this for credit, contact me right away and I think there are ways we can make that happen.)

The Wake

The Wake

It was de Polignac, I think, who wrote about the meaning of the great Panathenaic Festival. Whereas other cities of classical Greece had urban and rural sanctuaries, Athens had only the urban. And so, while other cities’ citizens would process out to the rural sanctuaries for their festivals, Athen’s great procession wound through its streets and open spaces: a show by the city, for the city; a demonstration of the city’s character and foundation stories to itself. Through the procession, the city reaffirmed its character and the character of its citizens.

Something like that, anyway. It’s been a while, since I’ve read de Polignac.

A similar impulse lay behind the Romans’ salutatio and procession to the forum. It was a game of seeing and being seen. I suppose its all a form of costly signalling, at a societal level- a way of re-inscribing a sense of who “we” are, whomever we may be, by showing us to ourselves.

I was thinking about all this as I stood outside the funeral home recently, taking my place at the end of the queue to pay my respects. Wakes are funny things. Irish wakes, so I’ve always been told, are moments of communal drinking, singing, and carousing, a celebration that the rest of us are still alive. Which makes me think of the funeral games of ancient epic.

This was not that kind of wake. In Shawville, the heritage is a dour Northern Irish Protestantism, a Quebec town with seven churches none of them Catholic. So I stood at the end of the line, waiting my turn to be received. A Shawville wake works like this. On the other side of the doors lies a long rectangular room, with the entrance on the one corner. Across the diagonal lays the deceased, surrounded by flowers. The spouse will stand beside the casket; children and their spouses/children to the left so that the youngest will be encountered first by the people in the queue. Cousins, in-laws, and other family members will be to the right. The family of the deceased is thus arranged in a receiving line. Mourners enter the room, and turn to the right along the one long wall. Often there is a little shrine of photographs or (more recently) a powerpoint presentation set up there. The first person in the queue shakes the hand of the family member; a brief murmur of words and then she will step over to the next member. The queue will move in fits and starts as each person has their moment to pay their respects, stopping quietly in front of the casket before moving on.

The circuit of the room concludes with the signing of the book of condolences, followed by an exit down the street. Often the queue extends out the door to the corner or beyond. During one’s time in the queue, one will hear murmurs of “good turnout”, or “there’s x; doesn’t she live in the city now?” or “who’s that with y, is that the new wife?” or “didn’t you go to school with so-and-so- there they are there!”

The wake functions, for Shawville, like the ancient processions of Athens and Rome. The wake surfaces the connections of obligation or respect that normally are too diffuse to spot. The wake is a clotting factor. Every wake then is also an opportunity for the community to remember who it is and how it got there. My brother teaches and lives in this community. He was about two dozen people ahead of me in the line. Very nearly every person leaving the wake spoke to him or nodded their heads in greeting as they passed. He has to go to a lot of these things, my brother. A teacher in a small community is a node in nearly every social network going. Every year, one or two students (or former students) are killed. Farming accident. Hunting accident. Road accident. Overdose. Sickness. He goes to them all.

He goes to the wakes of students’ parents and grandparents. He goes to the wakes of people he grew up with. He goes to the wakes of families connected to ours. He goes, and does what needs to be done. He’s there to show respect, but also, because he understands his role.

I probably see more students in a year than he does, but I don’t know them in any meaningful way. One or two, some of the MA or other grad students, maybe. I am fundamentally disconnected in a way almost diametrically opposite to the way he is connected. At the wake, his connectedness is apparent. But that’s just the sad flipside to the wonder of his connectedness to his students. The wonderful aspect shows in his everyday interaction with his students, with their families, with the community. It makes a difference, for these students, to have that connection. If that aspect didn’t exist, he would not be there, at the wake, waiting his turn.

What would it take for me to have that kind of connection with my students? The reader might feel that there’s an irony here: see the digital guy worrying about connecting! It’s a question worth asking though, because to some, the answer is *moar data*. Datafication. Tracking. Surveillance masking as ‘engagement analytics’.  None of these things lead to community so on display at the wake. They are the antithesis of community.

The things that are easy to measure gain their importance in that they are the things easy to measure; but they are not necessarily the meaningful things. The words of condolence spoken at a wake; the shared memory eliciting a quiet chuckle; the impact of seeing an entire community turn out to pay its respect; the cascades of affect and the sense of being valued that travels through the social networks on display; these things are not able to be measured in any way that would not have the effect of diminishing them.

The wake shows us to ourselves, and brings what matters to the fore. When the Taylorists and the Tumpists come for the universities, it will only be the connections we’ve forged, the actual community we’ve built, that will save us. What have you done lately to merit mention at the wake?

 

 

(featured image, cemetery covered in snow, Don Macauley)

 

Horses to Water

Horses to Water

The prof looked around the room brightly (or at least, as brightly as one can on a monday morning in March). “So let’s talk about your final projects. Where are we at? What’s working, where can we trouble shoot?”

Murmurs from the class. Some volunteered. “Going well, just have to meet later today to talk about it…” or “having trouble making variables work: has anyone run into…”. All good stuff.

The last group. “Yep, we’ve got everything written out in a Word doc, which is in Dropbox.”

“You’re working on a code project.”

“Yes…?”

“…which involves collaborating on code…”

“Yes…?”

“…for which we’ve invested considerable time and energy in learning how to use a digital tool explicitly meant to facilitate asynchronous collaboration on code….”

“Yes…?”

“….and you’re writing it using Word?”

“Yes…?”

Horses led to water do not necessarily always drink.

Crafting Digital History…. engage!

Crafting Digital History…. engage!

The term has started. Students are filing into HIST3907o and HIST3970-open-access. Conversations are starting to happen in our respective Slack spaces! (Reminder, if you’d like to lurk or follow along or participate, you can get yourself going here).

We’ve already encountered, discussed,and solved some problems with Git-it!

And it’s just the second day. I’m trying to make sure to greet each individual as they arrive in the course, and to set up some sort of discussion every day so that the space doesn’t seem sterile.

A Digital Humanities Pre-Class Questionnaire

A Digital Humanities Pre-Class Questionnaire

I’m using a questionnaire with my new DH MA students so that I get a sense of what we’re in for – our program takes students from 12 different grad programs across the campus, so there could be anything happening… I share my questions here for a) feedback on things I should’ve asked but didn’t b) things I could’ve asked better c) your own use if you so desire.

First, some basics:

  • What operating system do you use?

Mac OS X
Windows 7/8
Windows 10
Ubuntu
Something else? Cool!

  • Have you ever used the command line / terminal?
  • Do you have your own website?
  • Do you have your own domain space?
  • Have you ever set up a blog?
  • Do you use reference software (eg Zotero, BibDesk, Mendeley etc)
  • What text editing software do you habitually use?

Word
Pages
Scrivener
A text editor

And then, some questions about more complex tools (I know, markdown isn’t that complex, but in using it with R or KnitR or separating content from tools, etc, things get complicated)

  • Are you familiar with Python?
  • Are you familiar with R?
  • Do you envision maps and mapmaking as crucial to your research?
  • Do you envision sound and music as crucial to your research?
  • Are you familiar with Markdown?

 

Finally, I ask two questions to address/allay concerns:

  • Please describe any experience or concerns with a digital technology that you feel I should know.
  • Is there anything about this course that concerns you, in terms of technology, and expectations? This will allow me to allay your concerns, or to adapt my teaching, accordingly.

 

(featured image: ‘Hand’, by Alberto G https://www.flickr.com/photos/albertogp123/5843577306)

HIST3907O ‘Digital History Research Methods’ or, Crafting Digital History

cc Dave Catchpole

(I really need to work on my course titles.)

Registration is open! Non-CU students can sign up until February 25th if they wish to obtain formal credit

Update Jan 10: Class is underway! Join our Open Access Slack Community Space: http://slackinvite-hist3907oa.rhcloud.com/. Read the syllabus, explore the workbook at your own pace.

Join me next winter, right now, online, to learn how to craft digital history. You can just follow along if you don’t want to pay tuition – all my materials will be openly available/copyable/remixable. If you need a university transfer credit, that (probably) can be arranged too. I especially welcome folks who do not consider themselves to be techy.

­­

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

HIST 3907O  Crafting Digital History Winter 2015

Professor: Shawn Graham with guest appearances by Ian Milligan and probably others too!

Introduction: “We’ve spent millions digitizing the world’s historical resources. Let’s work together to figure out what they can teach us” – Adam Crymble

How do we find, analyze, and visualize the patterns in historical data? Is the internet a historical source? How do people talk about history online? Is Google changing our historical consciousness? What happens when people off-load their historical memory to Wikipedia? How do we regain control over our digital identity as historians? What does open access research mean for me?

Crafting Digital History explores these questions and more over the term through a series of hands-on exercises and individual project work. You do not need to be ‘techy’ to succeed in this course. I know that digital skills come in all shapes and sizes. What is far more important is that you are willing to try, and willing to say ‘I don’t know – help?’ I expect you to talk to each other in this class. Share your work. Collaborate. Help each other!

Digital history is a kind of public history. What’s more, the skills you will learn in this class will make you a better historian, a more critical consumer of online media, and more employable. If you want to do more with your computer than post on Facebook, this class is for you.

Class Format: We will be meeting face-to-face, virtually, once a week via a modified Google Hangout. These meet-ups are not obligatory, but you will get more out of the course if you do. They will help you stay on task. The class is divided into two-week modules that mirror the digital history workflow. There will be a menu of exercises to complete within each module (precisely which exercises will depend; in general terms, the exercises are pitched at different comfort levels, and so I will expect you to push yourself to do as many as possible). You can see an earlier iteration of the class materials here on github (note that the order of elements on a github page updates to put the most recent changes at the top; start with the ‘syllabus‘ folder! Note also that I will be revamping these materials in light of our experience this term, so that the fully online version is more polished.)

I anticipate being able to provide server space for you to set up your own digital platforms, blog, and digital identity. You will keep an online research notebook of your work, and a digital repository for your project. You will be expected to comment/learn/draw inspiration from the work of your peers, by leaving reflections in your own notebook. Your final project will be posted online (individual format and approach will be determined).

Aims and Goals: By the end of this course, you will be able to:

  1. Identify and define the limitations of useful sources of historical data online
  2. Compare and employ appropriate tools to clean and manipulate this data with a critical eye to how the tools themselves are theory-laden
  3. Analyze data using various tools with an awareness of the tendency of tools to push towards various historiographic or epistemic perspectives (ie, the ‘procedural rhetorics’ of various tools)
  4. Visualize meaningful patterns in the data to write ‘good history’ across multiple platforms, with critical evaluation of the limitations
  5. Model best practices in open access data management as mandated by SSHRC and other research agencies
  6. Develop an online scholarly voice to contribute data and reflection to the wider digital history community

Assessment: online notebook; reflection pieces; final project. There will be no final examination in this course.

 Text: An online workbook will be provided. Readings will be via online materials, provided within the workbook. You might topic model them… You may wish – but you are in no way obliged – to obtain a copy of ‘The Historian’s Macroscope’ (http://www.amazon.ca/Exploring-Big-Historical-Data-Historians/dp/1783266376 please note that the price listed in Amazon is not correct; do not purchase until I can confirm the correct price). A draft version of the text is available for free at http://themacroscope.org

Questions? Please email me at: shawn dot graham at carleton dot ca or find me on twitter @electricarchaeo.

On Teaching High School

“Hey! Hey Sir!”

Some words just cut right to the cerebellum. ‘Sir’ is not normally one of them, but I was at the Shawville Fair, and ‘sir’ isn’t often used in the midway. I turned, and saw before me a student from ten years previously. We chatted; he was married, had a step daughter, another one on the way. He’d apprenticed, become a mechanic. He was doing well. I was glad to see him.

“So, you still teaching us assholes up at the school?”

No, I was at the university. “You guys weren’t assholes.”.

A Look. “Yes, we were. But there were good times, too, eh?”

Ten years ago, I held my first full-time, regular, teaching contract, at the local highschool. The year before that, I was a regular-rotation substitute teacher. Normally one would need a teaching certificate to teach in a highschool, but strangely enough newly minted teachers never seem to consider rural or more remote schools. Everyone wants to teach in the city. Having at least stood in front of students in the past, I was about the best short-term solution around. Towards the latter part of that year holes had opened up in the schedule and I was teaching every day. This transmuted into a regular gig teaching Grade 9 computing, Grade 9 geography (a provincially mandated course), and Grade 10/11 technical drawing.

And Math for Welders.

The school is formally a ‘polyvalente’, meaning a school where one could learn trades. However, our society’s bias against trades and years of cuts to the English system in Quebec (and asinine language laws which, amongst other things, mandate that only books published in Quebec can be used as textbooks. How many English textbooks are published for a community with only around a million people, full stop?) meant that all of the trades programs were dead. In the last decade this last-gasp program had been established in the teeth of opposition (which meant these students were watched very carefully indeed – and they knew it). Instead of taking ‘high math’ and other courses (targeted at the University bound) these students could take ‘welding’ math. They also worked in a metal shop. If they could pass my course, and pass the ticket exam for Welders, they could graduate High School and begin apprenticeships.

The welding program was conceived as a solution for students (typically boys) who had otherwise fallen through the cracks in the system. It was intense. These boys (though there have been maybe five or six girls in the program over the years) had never had academic success. They were older than their peers, having fallen behind. They had all manner of social issues, family issues, learning difficulties, you name it.

And they were all mine. Not only did I teach technical drawing and math (so right there, two or three hours of face to face time per day, every day) I was also their home room teacher. At our school, ‘home room’ was not just about morning attendance, but was also a kind of group therapy session too. (I say, ‘group therapy’, but really in other classes, there was a mix of years in these home rooms, so older students could work with younger on homework, personal stuff, whatever; but in my class, it was just me, and the welders. We didn’t mix).

I learned a lot about teaching over those two years.

I could tell you a lot of stories of pain and stress. I’ve never been quite so near to quitting, to tears, to breaking down, to screaming at the world. I did a PhD! I was from the same town! I’d beaten the system! Did that not earn me some respect? Was I not owed?

No.

And that was the hardest lesson right there. In fact, although I thought myself humble when I started the job (after two years of slogging in the sessional world, hustling for contract heritage work, and so on), I still had a hard time disentangling my expectations of what students should be from my notion of the kind of student I was. Those first two months, up to Thanksgiving, might’ve been a lot easier if I had.

I also underestimated how hard it would be to earn respect. I figured ‘PhD’ meant I’d already earned it, in the eyes of the world. But I hadn’t counted on the ‘if you were any good you wouldn’t be working here’ attitude that infects so much of Canadian life (and rural life in particular).

Once, one of the students fell asleep in class. What do you do, as a novice teacher? You wake him up. You take him into the hallway to ‘deal’ with him. And then I sent him up to the office. What I didn’t know: his Dad was long gone. His mom was with a new beau, and had been spending every night at the bar. The oil bill had not been paid, and what with it being winter and all, there was no heat. He had been sitting up, every night to watch over his sisters whom he’d put in sleeping bags in the kitchen, in front of an open electric oven. He was afraid of burning down the house if he fell asleep.

And god help me, I was giving him shit for not drawing his perspective drawings correctly, for falling asleep.

With time, I began to earn their respect. It helped that at school functions I had no fear of standing up and making a fool of myself doing whatever silly activity the pep leaders had devised. “He’s a goof but he’s OUR goof!” seemed to be the sense. I learned that I had to stop being a ‘teacher’ and start being these guys’ advocate. Who else was going to stand up for them? Everyone else had already written them off.

In some corners of the school, there was a firmly held conviction that these guys were getting off easy, that somehow what they were doing was less mentally challenging. There were some ugly staffroom showdowns, sometimes. Welding math involves a lot of geometry and trigonometry, finances, and mental calculation. It’s not easy in any way shape or form. Tradesmen in Canada frequently work in Imperial units, while officialdom works in metric. Calculating, switching, tallying… these are all non-trivial things! “Sir, that’s the first time I passed a math test since Grade four” said one lad, around about October.

The first test since Grade four. My god, what have we done to ourselves? None of these students were dumb, in the sense that students use. When I lost most of the class to moose hunting season, when they got back I had them explain to me exactly what they did. Extremely complicated thinking about camouflage, fish and game laws & licensing, working with weapons and bullets… these guys were smart. They never hesitated to call me on it either when what I was saying to them was nonsense or not making sense.

“Sir”, a voice in the back would say, “what the fuck are you talking about?” You can’t get angry about language. This is how they’ve learned to speak. But imagine: a student in your class actually taking the time to explain that they don’t understand, and to show you where they lost you? These guys did that! Once I learned to take the time to listen, they had a lot to say.  Would that my university students had the bravery to do the same.

It was never easy, working with these guys. At the end of the year, I was completely drained. A tenured teacher came back from sick leave, and I was bumped from my position. Unemployed again.  Look at that from my students’ perspective. Here’s a guy, finished first in his high school, got a phd. Came back home without a job. Ends up working with us – us! – and then loses his job again afterwards. Maybe, just maybe, doing the whole ‘academic’ thing they push isn’t the thing. Maybe, maybe, working with my hands, welding, machining… I’ll always have work. If I can figure out how to plan the best cuts in this sheet of metal so that I don’t waste any money. If I can pass the welding exam. If I don’t get my girlfriend pregnant. If I maybe pass on the blow this weekend and go to work.

Did some of them think that? I’d like to think so. We bickered, we locked horns, but once I proved to them that I was on their side, I’d like to think the good stuff outweighed the bad. I certainly know that it did wonders for me as a teacher. First and foremost, it forced me to get over myself. I learned that:

  • nobody owes me anything
  • what I was like as a student is no guide to what my students are like as students
  • I need to ask how do I make it safe to try something, for students to admit that I’m making not an ounce of sense?
  • I need to not assume I know anything about my students’ backgrounds
  • I need to make my expectations crystal clear for what constitutes proof-of-learning
  • I need to be part of the life of my school/community so that my students see that I’m invested in them.

A few years later, I won a postdoc position at U Manitoba, and began teaching in distance education and online education. That helped me transmogrify into whatever this ‘digital humanities’/’digital archaeology’ thing is. That’s the final lesson right there. I have a PhD in the finer points of the Tiber Valley brick industry. Don’t be afraid to change: your PhD is not you. It’s just proof that you can see a project through to the end, that you are tenacious, and that you can put the pieces together to see something new. Without the PhD, I could never have worked with those boys.

I was glad to see Jeremy, at the fair this year.