An Exercise in Interactive Learning

I’m always anxious and willing to try new technology in the classroom. This semester my small experiments using Poll Everywhere have worked better in all my classes than any other semester so far. Part of it has been me learning how to use their system, part of it getting their system to work in the classroom and with everything else going on, and getting it simple enough to explain in a quick second so it doesn’t take precious classroom time. The Poll Everywhere technology has recently really improved, too. (Before students had to text a special unique code for each different question with their response, now they text one code once – explained below.) 

In my HIST1378 (United States History Since 1877) class, we used this today and had a lot of fun. They said we need to do this more often!

After going over the syllabus and our first lesson, I asked students to text “PEGODA” to 37607, if they didn’t mind participating and had a phone that could text. (There is also a way to do it with Twitter and a URL, but we didn’t use those today.) I explained that all answers are fully anonymous and not graded and that they might be part of a blog!     

I then opened the first poll. The prompt was “Today I Learned:” Results below. While not all were exactly correct, we had just gone over the information and were able to immediately clarify some points. Students who hadn’t spoken, “spoke.”  

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We then took a multiple choice review question. One of the students suggested that next time I should hide answers until everyone has answered so the “popular choice” doesn’t get more popular for that reason alone. I think that is possible. 

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We did one more review question in our test of the system. “What is History” was the prompt. (Regular readers will know I’m really big on the difference between history and History.) Responses were: 

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Word Clouds can also display results: 

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I’m interested in whether many other college classes have ever used these and what the experience has been? I’m interested in using this method of Q&A more often. It only took about 2-3 minutes per question – 5-6 all together, so not bad at all. The free system for higher education only records 40 responses and does not track responses, so it couldn’t be used for any graded work or attendance. I kind of like that it is fully anonymous to me and to other responders. The paid system is a few hundred dollars a year and allows unlimited responses, group competitions or something, and allows the instructor to track students. I worry that such tracking would result in a loss of magic. Thoughts, dear readers and fellow educators? 

Memorization Without Meaning Is Counterproductive: A Case Study Looking at “What is Texas History?”

This semester I am thrilled to be teaching Texas History again. Yesterday in class we spent a little over half of the period really analyzing the question, “What is Texas History?”

I decided to do this as the second lesson (the first lesson is “What is History?” that reviews some basic terminology and course expectations – we also started off by drawing pictures of “the typical Texan.” EVERY ONE, the Men and Women, in the class drew–or started to draw–a Man with cowboy boots, a hat, and the all the related gear) of the semester this time so that students have some better idea of our approach throughout the semester and aren’t (overly) surprised. Last semester a few of the students were surprised at times when we talked about the World War I or the Holocaust in a Texas History class. In fact, the first question for this part of the lesson I asked students yesterday was, “Just thinking in general terms, would you say World War II is Texas History?” They uniformly said, “NO.” I waited a second and someone said something like, “Sure people in Texas were involved but it’s not really Texas History.” That’s where we started challenging and discussion default responses and default discourses related to the What-is-Texas-History questions.

We watched the trailer for Office Space

I asked students, “Is this Texas History?” Again, they said, “No!” I said, well it was filmed in Texas. They still said no. I said, “Well do people experience traffic and working in offices in Texas?” Then we talked about how it is Texas History in a variety of ways.  

We then watched the trailer for Secondhand Lions

And guess what they said: Yes, that is Texas History…Because of the guns, the old-fashioned life style, the animals, and country setting. This movie was not filmed in Texas but the story was set in Texas (although this is not made clear in the narrative). 

We also watched and discussed part of the music video of Whiskey Myers’s Ballad of a Southern Man. Whiskey Myers is a Texas-based, Texas-grown band. 

Finally, we watched and discussed part of this music clip of the McAllen, Texas, Valley Symphony Orchestra’s Chorale Holiday Concert from 2011. 

With the orchestra clip we talked about what it means that this music is enjoyed in Texas. 

Through conversations related to all of this, we discussed that Texas History is World History in some ways. Anything/anyone/etc from Texas, in Texas, about Texas, or that had influence in Texas is fair game as “Texas History.” If we would have had time, I would have pointed to a location on the map just North or just South of the geopolitical Texas borders (the borderlands!) and said, “Does Texas History happen here?”

A good amount of what we discuss this semester will be outside of the boundaries most people think of when it comes to Texas History: boundaries that more often than not begin with Stephen F. Austin and end with the Mexican-American War or the Civil War. The “What is Texas History” lesson will be the beginning of an on-going semester-long conversation that will partly result in a paper on this topic. This is important for many reasons, one being that nothing happens in a vacuum, geopolitical borders are meaningless.  

Of course, we also spend time discussing things that make Texas unique per se – such as that due to its geographic location it was used to “store slaves for save keeping” during the Civil War. Such discussions are also very important   because things do develop differently in different places due to different needs, demand, culture, etc.  

In courses that I teach, I like to develop an over-arching goal that can be stated in a sentence. For the second US survey, the critical analysis of primary sources and everyday cultural artifacts with an eye on racism, sexism, and heterosexism is what I hope students remember most and use the most in their life. For Texas History, it is to have a strong awareness of historical memory and deeper recognition of the complexities related to “What is Texas History?” 

As class was ending, I said, “Now don’t be surprised on Tuesday when we talk about Christopher Columbus and his connection to Texas History!” I also said, “What do you one of the quiz question might be?” One said something like, “What are the four criteria for whether something is Texas History or not?” That’s when the specific thought, in specific words came to me that memorization without meaning is counterproductive. I responded let’s take it broader than that. They guessed that one of the questions will be, “What is Texas History?” (And that’s pretty close!)

We also spent time talking about “What does it mean to be a Texan?” and did a brief historiographical exercise. 

If you can’t tell, Thursday was a really fun class!


14 (And Counting) Reasons To Start At A Community College

Community Colleges are too often considered places to go when you’re not “smart enough” to attend a University. Community Colleges are sometimes looked at with a suspicious eye because not all faculty hold the terminal degree in his/her field and because people don’t really know what they are all about. With President Obama’s wise proposal to make Community College free, the criticisms will likely just increase. Forget such criticisms you’ve heard about Community Colleges. (Be sure to check Professor Lee Hutch’s posting about community colleges, too! This was planned as a tag-team blog!)

As a proud Community College graduate and professor at one, here are 14 reasons why you should strongly consider attending a Community College before attending a University. 

  1. Community Colleges—note the word “community”—are deeply imbedded in the communities which give them tax dollars and students and respond to local needs. 
  1. Community Colleges provide services and classes, credit and noncredit, for individuals of all ages. This brings a special kind of diversity to campuses. (I’ve taught community college classes where 90% of the students were older than me!)
  1. Community College students—because of their interests and work, military, and/or family experiences, for example—bring a special kind of very important talent, experience, and motivation not seen at Universities. Life experience adds value to everyone’s education! One of my community college professors who graduated from Columbia said community college students are much more creative and original because they didn’t enter life always expecting “greatness.” Community College students have a kind of “unmediated” worldview.
  1. Community College classes are taught by individuals who are experts in their fields. Sometimes even more of an expert because of their dedication to teaching and students.
  1. Community Colleges care about quality teaching.
  1. Community College professors teach a variety of classes, making it possible to take the same professor more than once.
  1. Community College students work just as hard, if not harder, than University students. 
  1. Community College students frequently get more meaningful learning opportunities and attention and more rigorous assignments because classes typically range from 20-70, not 150-450+. (A discussion-based class is impossible with 150 students.) 
  1. Community Colleges encourage students and faculty to form bonds outside of the classroom.
  1. Community Colleges allow the possibility that students, faculty, and staff can personally know a variety of students, faculty, and staff—it is a community
  1. Community Colleges understand that education is about much more than formal credits and academic degrees for everyone.
  1. Community Colleges provide numerous scholarships for their students.
  1. Community Colleges are much less expensive and provide a quality education. 
  1. Community Colleges are fun.

My path into teaching and professorship is beyond a doubt from having attended a community college and the many personal relationships that resulted.   community-college-t-shirt


(Some) Joys of Art, and My Restaurant Obsession

During my time as an undergraduate student, I took four art classes–Art Appreciation, Contemporary Studies in Art, Art History I, and Art History II. Out of classes I took at the community college level, I learned more in my art classes than in any other classes. These classes transformed how I saw and interacted with the world and planted a number of the seeds that blossomed into a core part of my world view that sees everything as a relative, social and cultural construction, where everything truly is art some way or another.  

Considering everything “art” is not disrespecting the work of Michelangelo or Artemisia Gentileschi or Picaso, for example. Art takes many forms beyond the “traditional” and naturally includes performance art, installation pieces, abstract works, and much, much more. Writing is a form of art, too. And yes, the random streak of orange across the gray canvas is art, too. Think of all the rhetoric and choice involved!   

As anyone who has dined with me at a restaurant or even waited on me can attest, I love stacking the dishes at the end. Not sure why I enjoy this so much. I enjoy getting a picture of it, too. Part of the fascination is that it is art, an installation piece if you will, and it only lasts a few minutes until it is quickly swished away to the never-never-land of the restaurant dishwasher and trashcan. (Yet, even that involves an element of art!) Stacking the plates requires balancing and organizing all of the plates and bowls restaurants use and getting the trash placed just right. Yes. I know. I’m a bit crazy. Making “order” of the chaos is enjoyable…in its own weird way.

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A Decade in the Reflection: From Freshmen to Professor

On Tuesday, January 11, 2005, at 8:00 am, I had my first class as a freshmen college student. I had just graduated from high school (home/self-schooled) on Friday, December 10, 2004.

I had no clue what to expect. I remember wondering if there would be bells between classes and announcements at he beginning each day (and super glad to know these don’t exist in college). I enrolled in college because “it was what you are supposed to do” and because I needed to be officially in college full time to maintain my health insurance and because in order to be a Chick-fil-A operator you have to have a college degree. I remember just hoping I would not flunk out! 

I had Business Computer Applications from 8:00-10:00, Composition & Rhetoric I from 11:00-12:15, and Intermediate Algebra from 1:00-3:00 every Tuesday and Thursday. I continued to work at Chick-fil-A on Fridays and Saturdays. The first day of ENGL1301 we were assigned to write a research paper due in one week about online learning and the other classes had a ton of homework. (Click here to see this paper! I ended up being able to use the basic groundwork in this paper for several projects over the years.) I came home, wrote these papers, and to my surprise, discovered I loved it. I remember thinking while researching and writing one day in the computer lab that first semester that I would love spending my life doing this.

I was quickly invited to the Honors Program and worked closely with my professors. The first semester flew by, and I loved it. It got to where any time I wasn’t studying–reading, writing, researching, practicing something–I longed to study. In the Summer 2005, I took Chemistry online. In the Fall, I took History, Sociology, Art Appreciation, and C++ Computer Programming. At this point, because of severe leg pain and my love of learning, I decided that I didn’t want to be a Chick-fil-A operator. I wasn’t all that sure at this point. Since I was little–and you can ask anyone this–I have always wanted to teach. Even when I wanted to be a Chick-fil-A operator (which I still kind of dream about sometimes!), I always thought about it in the framework of teaching people how to work hard and enjoy a job. 

Before I knew it, my time at Brazosport College was coming to an end. I ended up completing 69 credits with an “A” in every course. 43 of these 69 credits were Honors credits. By this time, I had decided I wanted to teach college. I knew I was going to get an MA in History but didn’t know much more. Everyone encouraged me, told me to get a Ph.D. in History. I was accepted at the University of Houston Clear Lake. My time at UHCL flew by, too. I was only there from January 2007 to May 2008.  It was during this time that I began my teaching career by working with students needing developmental education. It was also during this time that I fell in love with the critical analysis of culture using the past as a framework. My classes with Dr. Barbara Hales transformed how I saw and thought about the world and have shaped how I teach. I greatly value what I learned in her classes! Before I knew it, I was applying for graduate school and starting my first semester as a graduate student. 

My time in graduate school has been fun, surprising, and stressful all at once and tangled together! I had my third major surgery my second semester in graduate school. For me, I have learned far more outside of the classroom than in it during my graduate school days. My years in graduate school and all that I have discovered have really given me new perspectives on the world that have truly transformed almost everything about me. No one professor, no one book, no one class did this. This was the on-going cumulation of years and years of formal education and being in environments dedicated to supporting and creating free, critical thinkers. Hopefully, I’ll be fully done with the Ph.D. this year (before I turn 29!) and thus done with graduate school; although, my learning will never stop. 

So, we are in 2015. Ten years ago, I had no clue I’d be where I am today. I am in my 11th year as a college student and 8th year as a college instructor (I’ve blogged and published about teaching so much I won’t rehash those thoughts here at this time). Ten years ago, I didn’t know anything. Now, I know how much I don’t know. My list of “future research” and “to read” could take up several life times. I look forward to the next ten years, academically and otherwise. 

   Loch Alsh - Reflection

Recognizing Beauty: Why I Am Critical and Have High Expectations

For an hour yesterday I was laying on my stomach with my arms stretched out and holding perfectly still inside a 3 million dollar MRI machine at M.D. Anderson located in a multi-billion (trillion?) dollar complex in the Medical Center located in Houston, Texas, in the United States, on this pale blue dot. I’ll be in this same machine next Friday, too. 

While I was inside this machine, I was thinking about how absolutely incredible it is that we have such technology, made possible by science and research. That I’m inside a machine that can–to an almost perfect degree–measure and map everything in the area being scanned, my left hand in this case. That I have insurance that will cover this can and insurance to cover whatever needs to be done. And that the science exists to easily cure all kinds of things. And this made me think about the dozens of MRIs I have had the past several years, and the brain surgery, the heart/lung/chest surgery, the pelvis surgery, the growth hormone shots I took for a decade, and so much more. Science and doctors perform miracles all the time, and this is beautiful. 

And this got me to thinking about how I am occasionally criticized for being too critical of the United States and focusing too much on the racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, ablebodiedism, and anti-intellectualism, for example, that bother me so much and personally affect everyone. All of this is true and needs attention, much attention. I focus on the “bad things” in part because too few do. As long as I am pointedly asked: why do you focus on “so and so,” such a focus in necessary; however, this is not to say, I do not recognize the beauty that is in the world. 

The fact that humans have mastered and understand, use, and reproduce complex systems of signs, symbols, and sounds to produce what we call language and meaning is beautiful and fascinating. That we can study the ambiguities of all of this through semiotics is a high point of human civilization. 


And that I (and many others) can use this language on computers to write to world-wide audiences is a beautiful and unthinkable act looking at the scope of history. 

And then I think about all of the wonderful music that is available and all of the associated special effects. This beautiful performance (also embedded directly below this paragraph) has particularly captured my interest. The choreography, lighting, camera angles, lyrics, and energy and that all of this was live:    

And I think about all of the other authors and texts with which this performance and ones like it that are in dialogue with each other. (For example, See Transformative Authors and Texts – One Scholar’s List.)

And we mustn’t forget to mention the phenomenal Meryl Streep. The accomplishments of Oprah Winfrey (the only Black billionaire in the United States and one of nine in the World!). Or this family and their grassroots videos and YouTube channel.  

And so much more. Just by being alive and being able to read this article, which requires electricity and a computer and all kinds of specialized memorization, makes you among the wealthiest, richest, luckiest, most talented/accomplished individuals who has ever taken a breath. 

I also think about how incredibly lucky I am to have such a sweet, loving, incredibly smart and beautiful “partner in crime,” the one and only Dr. Trevor Lovejoy Pegoda:  


So I hope that people can see I am professionally critical of our society’s and world’s problems because I have high expectations and so much hope. We have so much potential for beauty. We need to use it for good, to help others. Helping and loving others, celebrating achievements, and always demanding the best and sharing everything, that’s what life is about.



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