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Flatland: The Movie in Science Fiction Class

The 2007 animated short film Flatland: The Movie featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell appears to be a popular teaching tool in math classes because it includes angles and other math concepts, but I have found it also works well in science fiction classes [see film website for more information]. Its short running time (around 30 minutes) allows it to fit into a normal class session with plenty of time for questions and discussion. It is based on  Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott and set in a society known as Flatland, a two-dimensional world. The graphics and pace are good, the themes are still relevant today, and there is a delightful irony in one of the characters who brings wisdom to others yet still cannot break free from his own limited worldview. It offers a nice break from the norm toward the end of the semester while still being a science fiction film that allows students to compare their world to the one in the film.Flatland movie poster

Activity for Flatland: The Movie (2007) featuring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell

Based on Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott

Questions:*

Which character did you identify the most with?

What are the rules of Flatland society? How does your shape affect your status?

Who makes the rules in this society?

What does heresy mean? What kinds of things are considered heresy in your society?

Why can’t the King of Lineland see the square? Why does Spherius resist the idea of a 4th dimension?

Compare our society to Flatland’s society. What are the similarities and differences? Which would you prefer to live in?

Do you think science fiction as a genre helps people understand their world better than more “realistic” fiction? Why do you think science fiction movies have become so popular?

 

*Some questions are from a math teacher’s wiki; others are my own. The possibilities for more science fiction questions are many!

Shakespeare through Digital Humanities Textual Analysis

I wanted to briefly introduce students to Digital Humanities in an introductory-level Shakespeare course I was helping teach, partly because they might not hear about it otherwise and partly because I really enjoy DH. Textual analysis seemed like the quickest and simplest method to choose, and Voyant Tools is a free and easy program (CC BY 4.0 Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell) available with just a browser and internet connection. I also showed them some searches of the plays using regular expressions. The following images are taken from my slides.

Analyzing Shakespearean Plays in Voyant Tools

Hoping to demonstrate just a few of the possibilities of Digital Humanities methods applied to literature, I put the online versions of the four plays we had studied throughout the semester into Voyant to see if there were any interesting insights that stood out which I could then discuss. I first showed the current play we were studying (The Winter’s Tale), then ‘zoomed out’ even farther to show all four plays (The Winter’s Tale, Richard III, As You Like It, and King Lear).

The Word Clouds (Figures 1 and 2) were unsurprising and most students have already seen these on the web.

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Figure 1: Word Cloud of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 2: Word Clouds of Shakespeare Plays

But the Trends charts (Figures 3 and 4) allowed me to point out how we can see the appearance and disappearance (or rise and fall) of certain characters in a visual way.

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Figure 3: Trends Chart of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 4: Trends Charts of Shakespeare Plays

And looking at the word ‘like’ in the Contexts chart (Figure 5), I showed them how this chart can help us see (in one place) and compare what kinds of similes Shakespeare used, for example. My favorite was ‘like the basilisk’ because that creature features prominently in one of the Harry Potter books.

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Figure 5: Contexts Chart of Shakespeare Play

I also checked out the Microsearch chart (Figure 6), which I believe is similar to one I saw demonstrated at a conference. I’d like to look more into what can be done with these kinds of visual displays.

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Figure 6: Microsearch Charts of Shakespeare Plays

Searching Shakespearean Plays in RegExr

For regular expressions, I borrowed a practice activity that was part of a DH workshop at the aforementioned conference. They used the RegExr sandbox website to have everyone look up all of the questions in the play Othello. Since in the class we had already examined a passage in The Winter’s Tale where King Leontes’ paranoia manifests itself through a series of questions he asks himself, I hoped the students could see the potential value in isolating questions to see what they might reveal about a play. I also showed them how to look up certain words along with surrounding words to see the context, such as all of the words ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ in a play about family.

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Figure 7: Regular Expressions Exercise 1 in Shakespeare Play

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Figure 8: Regular Expressions Exercise 2 in Shakespeare Play

This brief introduction gave them a glimpse at what one can do with a text once digitized, as Shakespeare’s are. It was enjoyable tinkering with the different tools in Voyant and seeing what connections and insights they revealed about the plays. It does seem to be a good first step into textual analysis.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

One of the main issues in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is ethnography and its limitations. The main character Genly Ai is an ambassador for the Ekumen confederation who is conducting a mission on the planet Gethen and making reports about its population, cultures, customs, etc. He especially has trouble understanding the androgynous nature of the people. To try to start students thinking about the practice of ethnography and the potential drawbacks before we began our discussion of themes in the novel, I created a short list of generic questions they were to ask a classmate. They then shared their findings with the class, and we all learned how different people’s everyday lives were, even in the same city attending the same university. One student decided to alter their fellow student’s responses because they seemed too boring; although it was obvious they were making up information by the tone of their voice, it provided a good opportunity to discuss how accurate these kinds of records are and what motives the interviewer might have for changing information. A lot depends on what questions are being asked or what is being studied — someone might not know to even ask about a custom that their own culture lacks, for example.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures (Merriam-Webster).

Take turns being the ethnographer and the person being interviewed.
You may wish to take notes so you can present a summary of your findings to the class.

Questions:

Could you describe a typical day for you in your home city?

Could you give an example of a typical meal (breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack) in your city/country? How is it prepared and who prepares it?

Could you describe an important holiday or festival?

When you meet someone for the first time, how do you greet them? Is there a difference in how you interact with women and men?

Shakespeare in a Mug Teaching Activity

For my first time helping to teach an introductory-level Shakespeare course, I found a good icebreaker activity from Stefanie Jochman on the Teaching Shakespeare Folger Education blog. It’s called Shakespeare in a Mug, which is her modification of Shakespeare in a Can from other teachers. The activity is fairly simple but really fun. You have students pick lines of a play or plays from mugs and then a location from another mug, and then have them improvise a scene after a brief preparation time.

Shakespeare mug

I modified hers a bit because I wanted students to be able to work in small groups rather than in pairs, since I thought that would be less intimidating. I also added a bit of participation for the audience by writing the possible locations on the whiteboard and having them guess the location after each group finished its scene. Since I wanted to use lines from the first play we were studying, Richard III, I went through the online version and picked out lines that I thought would be easier to mix and match for an improv scene and that didn’t have too much difficult language. I know the added pressure of reading out loud when it’s unfamiliar or hard to pronounce.

So here’s my version:

Shakespeare in a Mug
  1. Make sheets with lines from a play or plays and locations and cut them into individual strips (or modify my sheet of Richard III lines and modern-day locations).
  2. Put the lines in one, two, or more mugs (depending on class size) and the locations in a separate mug.
  3. Assign or have the students get themselves into small groups and choose one or two lines per person, then one location for the whole group.
  4. Give them time to prepare a scene set in their location using at least some of the lines. (I told them they could add non-Shakespearean lines if they needed to — some groups did and others didn’t.)
  5. Write up all of the potential locations on the boards if you want them to guess.
  6. Let them improvise their scene in front of the class and have the audience guess which location they are at.

Despite some eye-rolling and hesitance at the beginning, most of them seemed to get into the spirit as they started talking with their groups and having to negotiate how they were going to put together a scene. I was quite impressed with what they managed to come up with on such short notice, and we laughed a lot which was a pleasant experience for the first, sometimes awkward session where few people know each other and they aren’t sure what to expect. It also allowed me the chance to let them know that Shakespeare really has to be heard and performed for full impact, and that we would be doing more speaking of lines throughout the term.

One of the most memorable lines was an added one said in a ‘Shakespearean’ way. The group was pretending to be at a shoe store, and one person came up to the salesperson with a shoe in hand and asked, ‘Dost thou have these in a size 9?’ The class couldn’t help cracking up! I would definitely recommend this activity as a good ice-breaker or something to enliven a class or tutorial session.

Embedding Employability into University Courses

Teaching Week session on “Embedding Employability in Our Classes”
University of Canterbury
June 9, 2016

This session was an enlightening experience, with four employers invited to share what they were looking for when they employed graduates. The four employers were Layton Matheson from Moore Stephens Markhams (Accounting), Chris McGuire from MWH Global (Engineering), Graeme Barber who is Principal at Woodend Primary School (Education), and Cam Murchison from Harvey Cameron (Marketing). It would have been nice to have women on the panel, but I understand that the organizers are limited to who responds to the invitation to present at these events.

Their general criticism of universities was that they are not producing enough qualified people, making employers have to look outside of New Zealand for talent. They asked how many teachers have spent any time in the last 12 months in the industry that they are preparing students to go into, and very few people raised their hands. They called for more connection and partnerships between teachers and industry, and reiterated that there is a disjunct between theory and practice, especially in relation to industries that are changing rapidly. They acknowledged that instructors can fall back on how they were taught (19th/20th-century style) and may find it distracting to concentrate on items beyond curriculum and research (the pressures of ranking may take precedence, for example). The example was given of AUT having industry involved in every course in a particular discipline to make sure the link stayed current.

When teachers in the audience raised the issue of a large majority of students not being motivated or having a wide variety of ability levels in a class, some panelists said that you have to teach at or near the pinnacle, not the lowest common denominator if you want to have students succeed. They believed the drive and motivation of some students might be able to positively influence the others who are not as motivated. They said there is a need to uncover passion in students, make analogies while teaching so they see the relevance, and try to connect their learning to things they already know.

There were several key skills that emerged throughout the four panelists’ answers to the questions about what they’re looking for, so I have reorganized what they mentioned into those areas for clarity. They all seemed to be in agreement for most of them, indicating that they are important across sectors.

Flexibility & Ability to work across disciplines

  • Be transformational, not traditional.
  • We can’t afford to hire many or any specialists, so each staff member needs to have flexibility.
  • 20% of skill sets are outdated in 18 months, so we can’t keep people who won’t adapt and upskill.
  • Get out of silo framework/methodology where you can’t cross over and mix ‘n’ match (ex. Moving between data analytics, website, and finance; or visual reality, coding, and data analytics).
  • Cross-discipline awareness – structural engineer needs to know about water, electrical engineering, etc.
  • Break down silos: in the working world we don’t work in disciplines; need more integrated projects.

Strong Drive/Motivation

  • We need HIGH level of competency, not basic. We invest a lot in the first year and need people who can contribute straightaway.
  • We look at academic transcripts and see if they show consistency and that person can meet deadlines, focus, and apply themselves.
  • Are you an ongoing learner? What are you currently reading? Do you have a context for the industry? Keep up-to-date?
  • Looking for a growth mindset and someone who embraces challenges (any step they take is a step toward mastery and success).
  • Looking for people who are curious beyond what’s in the curriculum and passionate.
  • Good attitude, can produce something unexpected, willing to go the extra mile.
  • They need to meet deadlines; not a 40-hour week, you have to meet your deliverables in certain industries.

Technology

  • IT has changed enormously over five years; people need to know how to work with software and in a cloud-based environment.
  • Excel and PowerPoint are must-haves and should be standard training.
  • University should be adopting technology faster; research environment should be ahead of industry (like 3-D modeling).

Communication & Teamwork/Interpersonal

  • Communication, written and verbal; Can they present well? Can they be professional?
  • Need a culture fit and ability to work with co-workers.
  • We work with people and need to like people and have a good personality (no more back-of-the-house engineers).
  • People are part of a company’s brand and people need to trust in them.
  • Team player, able to work with multicultural and multilingual groups.
  • Ability to manage others and be managed (not lacking discipline).
  • Empathy: Can you understand what drives other people? Can you see things from their perspective?

Problem-Solving

  • Able to navigate ‘fish hooks’ and figure things out for themselves (case study analysis and teaching can teach this).
  • There’s no checklist for some jobs; they need to problem-solve and see bigger picture.
  • How do you use your intelligence in a constructive way?
  • We’ll employ problem-solving ability over a straight A academic transcript.
  • Do they know what questions to be asking and can they use technology to solve problems?

Other

  • Attention to detail (errors cost us money and clients).
  • Project management should be a skill for all graduates, as well as terms involved.
  • Ability to use time management tools, handle deadlines, juggle tasks (use Evernote, for example).
  • Business acumen and professionalism (not a day at the beach).
  • Need to be able to sustain 2 hours of analysis, not be distracted by other things (Snapchat, etc.).
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