Posts Tagged ‘Maine’

Google Docs and Composition Instruction

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

My handwriting is poor. For years I have joked that I can get away with this because I’m a doctor.  And I have absolutely no trouble reading my own brand of shorthand. What’s the problem? As a writing teacher, I am always commenting on my students’ texts, mostly in marginal notes on papers and in an end comment letter. I work very hard to write legibly on my students’ texts. But the fact remains that my poor handwriting always makes its way into those comments. I offer a translation “service” to my students when I hand back papers and dedicate class time to a reading of my comments before we work to put common writing challenges on the board. And over the term my students do become better interpreters of my shorthand.

Commenting on student texts has always seemed more personalized when I’m hunched over a desk with a pencil in hand, making decisions about where and when to mark the text. And space limitations of the margins help reduce the likelihood that I’ll overwhelm the student with feedback, though that’s always a real possibility.

Back around 2001, when I taught freshman writing as an asynchronous online course, I experimented with digital markup using Acrobat. I found it time consuming and clunky, and while I could write more text quite quickly – and legibly – I disliked the distance the process put between the printed page and myself.

MS Word’s comment tools and track changes have always bugged me for some reason. Perhaps it’s the ease with which one can simply “accept all changes,” effectively allowing a student to let me revise the paper. (I feel this way even though I almost never actually rephrase or rewrite a student’s sentence.) This is already a challenge in teaching revision: students often revise only those moments we mark in a text, thinking that will “fix” the paper.

Strange. For all I’ve done to embrace emergent digital writing technologies over the last dozen years, I have resisted what is perhaps the most basic tool the writing teacher might adopt in working with student texts. Until now.

Enter Google Docs

I feel like a luddite for not getting serious with Google Docs. My institution uses Google Apps for Education, effectively putting all of my students on the Google network. This is quite exciting for a number of reasons that go way beyond Docs. But that’s another story.

Students write their papers directly into a Doc they create on their account, copy-paste a text document from their computer into a Doc, or upload a text doc to Docs. Once they have the paper appropriately formatted (double-spaced, block quotes, page numbers, etc.), they “share” the document with me. I comment on the document and they get immediate feedback.

It’s a bit like MS Office, making it less than beautiful, only I don’t need to have the files on my machine or worry about file compatibility. (Until this term, I regularly received attachments in .pages, .doc, .docx, .txt, .odt, and even – yes – .wpd formats.) I have four different word processing programs on my computer so that I can handle this variety!

I do have an issue with “shared” documents and marking texts. The real-time nature of Docs means that my comments show up immediately. I prefer to distribute final, marked papers at the same time, particularly since it can take several days to work through a (virtual) stack of papers. The workaround I’m using involves copying the shared document, pasting it into a new document I own, and making my comments. I can then share the comments to each student at roughly the same time.

Peer Review

More important than the way this tool enables me to comment on texts is its potential in the peer review process.  My approach to peer review has always involved in-class reading and discussion of student texts. Everyone brings multiple copies, small groups do read-arounds and discuss each text in the group, and I sit in on groups to offer guidance and encouragement.

New this term, I’m putting the reading of drafts onto homework, with the class period reserved for discussion of the ideas and suggestions for revision. Students share their draft Doc with designated peers; commenting happens on the Doc.

I can quickly and easily see the character of the students’ comments, flag and echo some of the best comments by peers, and add my own to the mix. Gone are the days when I would have to collect 3 copies of a draft to see the “layers” of peer feedback on a student’s text, or rely on some other elaborate, paper-heavy mechanism to evaluate the peer review in my classes.

I do worry that the marked document may overwhelm novice writers who can easily become overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback on a single document. (It would be very, very cool if the author could choose to view one set of comments or another.)

Problem – MS Office is Inescapable

In terms of workflow, I have found that the current version of Docs is very limiting when one wants to print comments. Print your Doc and the comments get stripped out before printing. Docs has a full portfolio of export/download options (.doc, .pdf, .html, and more). But only .doc preserves the comments though the export. Frankly, this stinks to high heaven!

Here’s the workflow:

  1. Open Doc with comments that you want to print to bring to class, perhaps to reduce laptop multi-tasking during peer review.
  2. Download .doc file to computer. Open in Word, Pages, Open Office, or another editor. Print.
  3. Bring to class.

This approach isn’t too cumbersome if you’re only printing one Doc. Now multiply the process by 20, 40, 60 to hand back papers with comments.

The writing teacher has already spent 15-30 minutes marking each text. Putting two steps between “desire to print” and “actual print” seems ridiculous. And I’m not sure what technical hurdle would prevent comments from printing. I’m sure Google will address this in some upcoming update.

In an online or hybrid/blended writing course, I can see Docs as a wonderful tool. Printed text becomes irrelevant in an online environment.

 

The Innovative University

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Christensen, Clayton, M., and Henry J. Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

I should have read The Innovative University  last year. It is a book that seems to have penetrated fairly deeply into higher education management circles after the authors’ central concepts of “disruptive innovation” and institutional “DNA” found an audience in the larger business world.

I should have read The Innovative University just so that I could better understand some of the ideas behind administrators’ thinking these days. The incentive to read the book came this past month in the form of an invitation by the provost to join a discussion of the text and the possible implications for the future of my own university.

I find little to argue with in the authors’ complaints about the hazards of attempting to transplant the “Harvard DNA” into colleges and universities that lack the resources, selectivity, and star power of a Harvard. And who but a member of a dying breed of nostalgic professors could claim that the tremors that currently rock higher education are just noise that will have little impact on his or her institution. Online education, careful consideration of the teaching-service-scholarship mix, and redefinitions of scholarship itself are clearly on the table for almost any college or university. And The Innovative University offers some food for thought in these areas. As always, I remain ready to engage with colleagues on just these issues.

But I found The Innovative University lacking a certain scholarly treatment of the issues. Early on, the authors claim that they will use “DNA” as a metaphor, and such a move is innocent enough.  One can employ metaphor to great effect.  But, of course, one can also push a metaphor so far that that it is no longer suitable. This, it seems to me, is where The Innovative University runs with its metaphor of DNA.

I’m no biologist, but my sense is that DNA changes through random mutation and combination in reproduction. Its expression in phenotype or perceived traits has something to do with dominant and recessive traits. Many elements of DNA have little or no impact on the functioning of an organism (or a species). Some weaken the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce, to be sure, while others may offer the organism a competitive advantage in the quest for survival, a mate, and offspring. This kind of change is generally understood to be very slow, particularly for more complex organisms. (And, of course, an organization is not an organism.)

And this is a problem. If it’s DNA that explains the “evolution” of Harvard University and efforts to replicate or transplant that DNA that are getting so many schools in trouble, why is the book chock full of decisions made by specific individuals responding to particular challenges/circumstances?  One doesn’t will a change in DNA, unless one is a sort of deity who can go into an organism and perform miracles. Hmm. University presidents as nearly omnipotent beings capable of shaping DNA.

In a sense, perhaps the authors’ use of DNA to describe what sociologists and students of organizational behavior might call an organization’s culture or its institutions is actually a vehicle for signaling to leaders that they stand in this God-like position: “Yes, your university does have DNA.  It’s important to ‘know’ that DNA so that you can mold and shape it to respond to perceived market forces. Institutional make-up is hard wired (DNA), and yet transformational leaders of the sort who move Harvard and other universities are powerful enough to change it.”

That kind of power is generally seen as the province of Mother Nature, God, or natural selection. While this isn’t the central message of The Innovative University, it may help explain why the ideas of disruptive innovation and organizational DNA are so appealing to CEOs, presidents, and others in positions of power and influence.

Changing an organization is so hard because it’s encoded in the DNA of an institution. But the true leader is able to see the DNA and manipulate it to enable the organization to adapt in ways that make it better suited to its environment. Heady stuff, indeed!

Upgrading WordPress to 3.3.1

Monday, January 9th, 2012

It’s taken a little while for me to take it up, but I finally broke down and upgraded my WordPress install to the latest version. I’m only just starting to get to know this version. Still, it’s pretty clear that the WP team has made some good additions.

Drag and Drop Media Upload

Right away, I noticed a simplified media upload mechanism. WP is getting smarter. It can now detect the media type you want to upload and sort it appropriately. Even more interesting is the drag-and-drop functionality for media uploads. I gave the tool a quick test drive by uploading a header image, a shot of my backyard pond, below.

Header for Spring 2012 English Composition Course

Backyard Pond.

Flyout Menus

Anyone who spends time with WP knows that the dashboard sidebar menu structure is a bit long.  On a laptop, it’s not uncommon to see the menu run below the fold, forcing a scroll just to locate the settings options.

Flyout menus changes all that.  It’s easy to see your menu options on hover, saving the extra click and streamlining the look of the text in the dashboard sidebar.

Why Update?

Good question. When is something good enough?  I can’t really answer that question.  There are security issues to consider, of course, and the newest version closes some vulnerabilities. In all honesty, the security concerns weren’t enough to move me to the upgrade.

I needed a little down time on my running sites to feel comfortable with an update.  The semester break created that down time for me.  (I didn’t want to break course websites midstream.) But that wasn’t even enough, really.

In the end, my desire to create an option for users to subscribe to Page updates through RSS led me down a path that required the update. RSS Pages for WordPress 3+ required an update to my WP 3.  That update went well, although the plugin page indicates that it had not yet been tested with 3.3.1.  Consider this a leapfrog moment.  I installed the plugin and it seems to be working just fine.

Rat Rod Ride – 1971 Iverson Road Runner

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

1971 Iverson Road Runner

Over the weekend I picked up a complete, original 1971 Iverson Road Runner, a classic rat rod bike style that brought me right back to my childhood days on a banana seat Schwinn my dad repainted and named “The Streaker.”

This Maine barn find is the coolest thing. Stickers on the double-crown fork give it the look of a sprung front suspension. Ape hanger bars are each mounted in their own posts, affording maximum flexibility in positioning the bars. The chainguard is in great shape, and both fenders are solid, original, and nearly perfect.

Sure there’s rust all over the chromed bars, the rims, and even the chainring. And the foam in the seat is, well, nonexistent. But the seat has no tears in it and the tires held air when we got it home and pumped them up for a test ride.

Why did I get this thing? Over a couple weeks, I had been eyeballing it beside a barn during my commute. It looked like it was going to the trash, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Jess could tell that it pained me to see it out in the weather. When I saw the homeowner outside, I pulled over, made some inquiries, and loaded up the bike (and one more that isn’t nearly as cool).

I’m not sure what I want to do with the bike.  It’s an excellent resto candidate since it is, quite literally, complete. But I almost think it’s just more fun the way it is. For now, it’s just really cool to see my own kids taking a spin on the kind of bike I rode back in the day.

Oh, the Price? Free!

 

Jammin’ in Maine

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

This summer we finally made the move to Maine. After a year of weekly 500-mile commutes, we threw in the towel on selling the house, rented it out and made the move up to Maine. It’s a wonderful thing!

One of the first things our daughter Emma wanted to do was make jam with the berries growing all around the property. She and I collected about a half gallon of black raspberries one morning. The next morning we got up early and started cooking. Amazingly delicious stuff!

Then Will wanted to do the same thing with the wild Maine blueberries around the house. Those are harder to collect because they’re so small, but the jam he and I made is just as tasty

What a simple, yet pleasant experience. Walk around the yard with a bucket, pluck ripe fruit, boil it down and add sugar, seal it in jars, and spread on a good toast.

We’re about done on the blueberries since the season is almost over. But the raspberries look like they’ll be ripening for a couple more weeks. Perhaps another batch is in order. And we’ll need it since the kids insist that we mail a bunch out to family.

Mountain Biking on Mt. A

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011
YouTube Preview Image

This is my second attempt at a POV video of a Mount Agamenticus ride. The first attempt involved a great 25-degree cold weather ride, but the cam was pointed at the ground and one could get no perspective.  On this second attempt, I tried to get the cam mounted in a better position.  Things start out ok, but the duct tape/bubble gum rig I have set up just seems unable to hold the cam in the right position. All the bouncing over rocks doesn’t help.

The audio for this video is courtesy of Youtube’s Audio Swap feature. Apparently, I wasn’t careful enough with fair use in dropping in my own music; Youtube graciously deleted the audio associated with my original before publishing the project. (Thanks, I think.)

The Rig

HTC Evo mounted to a plastic lightswitch cover using zip ties and o-rings. That apparatus is then mounted to the decent quality helmet mount for my night light rig. But the weight of the phone seems to be too much for the little adjustment hinge on the night light rig.

The Ride

I like this challenging little ride. The first part involves a decent climb up the west side of Mt. A, and around to the north. It’s mostly a wide double-track, but there are plenty of decent boulders, slippery wet washouts, and some serious roots to ride. On a dry day it’s 100% doable, provided you’ve got the legs and lungs to take it. In the video, it’s pretty clear that things are very wet and loose. The decaying leaves complicate matters by hiding the treacherous stuff that’ll cause the rear wheel to give way, the front end to stall on a big root, or worse.

The video doesn’t capture the ride to the summit because I skipped that part of the ride that day. It does capture the easterly descent from Mt. A and over to Second Hill. That’s a hairy downhill section with some sizable 2′ drops off boulders that head right into a tangled nest of roots and loose rocks, followed by some nice technical switchbacks that head to Porcupine and Second Hill.

The ascent of Second Hill is another good little workout that’s about 95% doable, at least when it’s mostly dry. I’ve done this hill about 15 times and I have yet to pull up the last little piece of rock to get clear to the summit.  Mostly, it’s because it’s a near vertical face, but there’s also the thigh burn to contend with by that point. Descending Second Hill on the north side is a fun section because it isn’t quite as rocky and root-infested as so much of the other hills, at least until you get near the bottom. At the bottom, there’s a pretty serious washout and root-laden section that’ll draw some blood if a tire slips out at the wrong time. In the video, there’s a nice foot-deep puddle marking the end of the descent. I’m sure some folks have wiped out there and gotten wet. Thankfully, I’ve avoided that problem.

There’s some nice, somewhat challenging up and down riding on the way back over to Mt. A, and I actually wish there were more of that sort of terrain on my ride. And then it’s a good backtrack up the mountain and down the northwest side to the parking lot.

Deep Winter in Smith Preserve

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

As I suspected in the fall, Smith Preserve is a beautiful, local winter getaway. The trails are frequented by cross country skiers and hikers alike, and it is a beautifully quiet place to spend an hour or two. I strapped on snowshoes a couple weeks ago during a deep freeze.  I found solitude, crisp air, and frozen streams.

This week I took another late afternoon/early evening hike in Smith.  As I rounded the bend on a loop I’ve been taking an owl flew right across the trail, landing in a tree about 50′ from the trail and 20′ off the ground.

I dropped my poles and headed off into the woods to see if I could get a closer look.  Amazing! The owl was both completely aware of my presence the whole time and undisturbed by my effort to get close.  I stood under the owl and we stared at each other.  I took about a half dozen pictures with my phone, though darkness was beginning to set in and so it was tough to get a nice shot.

Smith Preserve is proving to be a really sweet spot. It’s halfway between home and office, and it’s position on the commute makes it ideal for a quick trip into the woods.

Riding at Smith Preserve

Friday, November 19th, 2010

After driving past Smith Preserve for a month or so, I decided to give it a shot.  There’s a clear sign indicating that mountain biking is allowed there. It’s a network of double-track trails likely to draw cross-country skiers in the winter months, along with some single-track that I have yet to fully explore because I don’t want to be lost in the dark back there. Mostly, I’ve managed to eke out small 30-minute rides before fearing that darkness will set in and leave me hanging. It’s clear that there’s more to explore, and I have yet to find a soul in the woods.

It’s not at all challenging from a technical perspective, though the flat terrain does make for a good cardio ride.  It’s a soupy mess in places, owing to the general marshy nature of the entire Kennebunkport area.  Autumn leaves littering the trail do make the ride a bit challenging since boulders, downed logs, and more hide in the puddles.  There are definitely trail hazards in there. Even with a good night light, the dusk rides get a bit scary in places.

It’s hunting season as well.  Pick-ups are parked all around the area, a clear sign that one could get shot.  My guess is that the preserve is off limits, but I’m not sure.  I broke out my fluorescent orange waterproof cycling jacket for the occasion. The bonus is that it keeps me warm enough to ride as the temperature dips.  No frosty rides – yet.

I started to struggle to get myself around Mt. Agamenticus before darkness set in once we turned back the clocks.  Not wanting to be caught out in the cold and the dark on the mountain, and tiring of the 35-minute drive just to hit a trail, I had to strike out and find another riding spot if I wanted to stay on the bike. Smith Preserve fits the bill just fine right now.

WordPress 3 (Thelonious), Windows Server, & NEWACC

Friday, September 24th, 2010
WP, Win, MySQL, PHP

Last April, at the Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium (NEWACC) Steering Committee meeting at Boston University, I agreed to work with Mike Palmquist at the WAC Clearinghouse to get a NEWACC site up and running by the upcoming NEWACC meeting at Quinnipiac University. NEWACC was imagining a website within the Clearinghouse, as well as a blog. Ideally, this would run in a single tool, a CMS with a blog built into it. I started thinking WordPress because of its strong blog platform and its functionality as a CMS. (Obviously, that’s not the only option.)

Unfortunately, the Clearinghouse didn’t have the back end apparatus to host any of the popular blog platforms. And there were concerns about security in a PHP/MySQL setup. At first it looked like a unified solution would not be possible. But Mike is a great guy who is willing to push the boundaries a bit.  He told me they were experimenting with virtual servers for local projects at Colorado State. After a few months of testing, in mid-September Mike got a virtual Windows Server up and running, with IIS on it.

WordPress on Windows?  Hmm. Generally, Windows and PHP with MySQL don’t even belong in the same sentence. My first response was, “This won’t work.” Then I thought, “This won’t work without major hacks, patches, and a major months-long headache.” Surprise!

6 Hours Later…

WordPress is notable for its famous “5-minute installation” instructions. Right in the instructions are guidelines for installing WP on Win. Microsoft has a FREE (yes, free) product called MS Web Platform Installer that makes relatively quick work of all this headache. Get it installed on your server and you can manage all the app downloads and installations through checkboxes and a GUI.  Sweet!

It wasn’t quite that simple, though I have to take some of the blame because of my lack of knowledge.  I didn’t know there was something called IIS until I started trying to run a tool built to run on Apache on a Windows Server.  It took a couple meetings with some web folks at UNE (Al and Neal, thanks!) before I started to get a handle on the Windows Server/IIS thing. My internet access in Maine is pretty spotty, and this really limits file transfer speeds. The first installation of WP went into a subdirectory, and so it was in the wrong place.  And the FTP access wasn’t activated on the server until after I poked around.What is amazing to me is that it’s running at all. And it is!

WP 3 as a Network

The new power of WordPress 3 is that it can run multiple blogs in a single installation. It’s important to activate this feature within 30 days of an installation. I don’t know if NEWACC will have a use for this feature, but if we don’t do it now we’ll find it harder to handle down the road.  So I took on this piece as well.  I found instructions for Network activation on a Windows installation of WordPress at Laura Gentry’s site. Smooth as silk.

Next Steps

4.5 months into the project we’re set up with server space at Colorado State. We have a virtual server running WordPress 3, a platform that will integrate the NEWACC website with the NEWACC blog, and a tool that can actually scale up to host multiple blog or sites over time. I can now turn my attention to the thing I agreed to do in April.  I can start to build the website for NEWACC!

Mt. Agamenticus

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

I found another nice set of bike trails in the area.  Mt. Agamenticus is a cool mountain in York at the heart of “one of the largest remaining expanses of undeveloped forests in coastal New England” (http://www.agamenticus.org/index.html). On Sunday I rode the trails that head to the mountain peak. It’s only about 30 minutes away from my place, making it fairly easy to ride.

I rode Ring and Fisher on the way up, and Witch Hazel, Ring, Chestnut Oak, Porcupine, Rocky Road, and Ring on the way down.  I missed the turn to hit Chestnut Oak, ending up on a nice, technical ride down Goosefoot.  But Goosefoot dropped me at Cedar, a trail that ran off my trail map.  I had to climb that same technical hill back up to catch the Chestnut Oak trail. (Oops.)

Perhaps the coolest thing about this ride is the bonus view from the top of Mt. Agamenticus.  A lookout on the north end of the mountain offers views of the hills and valleys of Maine and New Hampshire, and I could see the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the distance.  (A panoramic sketch of the mountain silhouette helped me locate those mountains, taking me back to the days when I used to hike those mountains all the time.) And from the southeast side of the peak I could see the Atlantic ocean. This will be a great place to ride as the leaves turn, and as they drop and the views just open up. This is a great place for hiking as well.  On the summit, at the ranger station, there’s a wonderful nature exhibit, with hawk wings, pelts, and plants that introduce visitors to the wildlife of the region. I’ll bring the family here soon!

It was such a nice ride that I headed back for more on Monday evening.  I met Rob, a local Ogunquit bike shop owner, at the trail head.  He offered to show me some of the trails I hadn’t yet explored.  We had a really nice, quiet evening ride as I explored the northeast end of this conservation area.  After running around Ring and out around Second Hill, we rode straight up the north side of Agamenticus on Sweet Fern.  We hit the summit just as the sun was setting over the mountains to the west.  Gorgeous! I don’t normally ride with a partner these days, unless I’m riding with my kids.  It was great to have someone to ride with and I’ll be sure to try to ride with Rob again.

Apparently, there’s another network of trails in a water district conservation area just across Mountain Road.  Rob and I agreed that it would be nice to explore that area some other time.