Friday in the Stacks: Another Gem in the Collection

My officemate, who supports history among other departments, showed me this sweet resource in our reference stacks the other day:  we have many books in the American Guide Series!  What is the American Guide Series, you ask?  It’s a series of books commissioned and published as part of the New Deal – an effort to support writers (over 6000!) in America during the Depression.

I flipped through a few and they are precious, fabulous, and a great primary resource.  They have some maps and photographs, cover the history of the state and several key cities, and list a number of “tours” of the state via the state and federal highways.  What a lovely set of resources – and we have all the states (with the exception of Hawaii which wasn’t a state at the time), and several cities.  Here are some images from the South Dakota book… hey look!  Mount Rushmore:

Pages on Mount Rushmore in the South Dakota book of the American Guide Series

Pages on Mount Rushmore in the South Dakota book of the American Guide Series

My partner and I went to a wedding at Sylvan Lake a few summers ago – this was the backdrop of the wedding!  Many of the guests stayed at Sylvan Lake Lodge!  Ahh – so fun!

Pages on Sylvan Lake in the South Dakota book of the American Guide Series

Pages on Sylvan Lake in the South Dakota book of the American Guide Series

And on the inside cover, there was a lovely map of SD (on the back there was a pocket with a much larger map you could pull out and really explore):

Inside the front cover of the South Dakota book of the American Guide Series

Inside the front cover of the South Dakota book of the American Guide Series

These books are really interesting to read, too, in the context of another book I’m currently reading –  The Warmth of Other Suns (you all should read this!), the story of a vast migration north and west of black Americans in the interwar period.  This phenomenon drastically reshaped and influenced in a multitude of ways urban and suburban areas in the north and west.  In any case, in the Michigan book in the American Guide Series, one chapter details the general history of different people populating Michigan (with a notable absence of mentions of Native Americans).  This chapter discusses the rich history of European influences over the decades – but also references the “Great Migration” (even though this was only published in 1941!) detailed in the Warmth of Other Suns book.  As Spock would say… fascinating!


A favorite thing

NOTE:  This post was mysteriously not published back in March, 2014 (when I was still at Michigan).  So, here you go!  Enjoy!


One of the things I love most about living in this University town for a number of years is attending the dissertation defenses of my dear friends.  It fills me with a special kind of joy to watch people I know in one capacity present some overview of all that they have accomplished in their work from the last four to eight years.  Woah.  Serious stuff!

It’s fascinating to see the difference of styles between departments, the different presentation choices different people make, and the truly vast range of topics covered – really, it’s humbling and inspiring.

Inspiring this post, I’ve just attended a defense talk by a friend about the genes and proteins involved in a blood disorder (something akin to hemophilia but not quite).  Important work and a job incredibly well done.  I may not have understood most of the talk, but I think it speaks well to the speaker that I understood the major issues and major conclusions (and their implications).  Go Lesley!

But, I’ve been to quite a range of these talks – which is just the best!  Many that I’ve been going to recently are for folks getting MD/PhD’s (in that category, my husband’s was obviously a highlight; especially after hearing five practice talks…)!  I’ve enjoyed going to the defense talks of others from his lab, too, though.  One recent defense talk from his lab started in a lovely way: “This could be a story of two loves, but the story of meeting my wife will take too long so I shall only be able to cover my love of science.”    Well played, Alejandro, well played indeed.

One memorable talk I remember just might have been my first dissertation defense talk I had ever been to outside of the department I was in at the time (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology):  Leo’s math talk!  He literally gave a chalk talk (the only defense talk I have been to that used no computer, no slides, no projector… just chalk and the board).  Leo started off with, “So Euclid said…”  After those words I was lost, but it was amazing to watch him give this lecture summarizing his whole PhD using the board.  Math.  That is one incredible field of study.

Another friend, Katie, defended her dissertation in Classics last year – but I wasn’t allowed to attend!  They were not public!  I was so distraught – tracking down friends who are defending is really my thing and I was very sad to miss this one.  Luckily, I helped her with her (ultimately highly successful!) job talk and that sufficed as a defense talk.  Heracles had quite the wild ride, I learned.

A few former housemates were in the Astrophysics department and I went to about three defenses for that program covering the formation of stars, the formation of galaxies, and the formation of the universe.  Those made me feel quite small!  Mark, another former housemate, defended an applied physics dissertation wherein he looked at how we could image breast cancers more effectively.  Turns out it’s quite a challenge to capture a picture of a cancerous mass in some squishy tissues.

Finally, I have loved attending a number of defenses from folks in the Ecology department – particularly those in my original cohort who went on to get PhD’s.  I’ve heard about plant farts (just kidding, plants don’t fart – but they do produce chemicals that can hint to predators of their herbivores that there might be tasty snacks for them), earthworm impacts on forest litter dynamics, predator effects on tadpole communities, complex food web dynamics, community ecology of agroecosystems, aquatic microbiology, and… so much more.

I think what I love most about attending these events is that it’s clearly a time to pause and say, “Gosh, I have done a lot.  Some of what I’ve done makes the world a better place.  Some of what I’ve done really furthers my field and opens up new avenues for research.  And I’m proud of that.”  I don’t know that we do that “pause” in the working world enough.  Preparing for a defense takes a certain amount of effort – and sometimes, it seems to me, the defender feels like they’re on mile 25 of a marathon and is running on fumes.  But, I think it’s valuable to reflect on what one’s research amounted to (even if some projects didn’t work out or failed outright).  In doing that reflection, I think the defender can come out of what, at times, may have been a truly harrowing experience with some down-in-the-dumps time and realize all that they have accomplished, all that they can do, all that they have learned how to do, etc.

In the question period of Lesley’s defense, one astute audience member asked about the ratio of effort to data in this defense.  The audience member speculated that that ratio might have been high (as in, over the course of a PhD, one puts in a lot of effort pursuing one project after another – or many at the same time – and not all yield fruit).  Lesley had a very gracious answer in response, but I find this question to be highly apt for many PhD’s.  It seems to me that in doing such an endeavor, one DOES put in a lot of effort going down paths that aren’t fruitful (on the face of them).  But that exercise is the process of learning to do science.  Sometimes things don’t work out!

Other insights from this exposure?

Crafty Creative Time

At our library, mimicking Google’s 20% time, we spend a (small) percentage of our time on something creative.  Many people take MOOCs, many pick up new skills somehow, and until recently I was blogging about my collection weeding efforts and the new resources I was finding.  I will pick that up again shortly.  But since January, I’ve embarked on a collaborative crafty project with my officemate…appliqué and embroidery!

Let me back up.  When I married my husband, my sister created a beautiful quilt for us by sending out squares to our family and friends to design.  See how lovely it is??

Wedding Quilt

Then, when my son was born last year, she presented us with a blank quilt of the same style.  As I got to know my lovely officemate, Laura, I learned she was incredibly crafty (alas, an adjective one would not ascribe to yours truly).  So, we decided to embark on a collaborative project ourselves:  she’d mentor me and help me stitch on something related to Henry’s first year.  Et, voila!

Me holding Henry's quilt Henry Quilt 2 Henry Quilt 3Butternut squash!  Always a favorite 🙂  And I seriously could not have done it without the amazing mentorship and calming vibes of the amazing Laura R.

Happy springtime, dear readers!


MOOC musings – a beginning

Ah Coursera.  I have been putting off this post for some time.  There is much I want to say – so I think to get all my thoughts out there, I’ll take the tactic of mini-posts.  Of course, whenever I attempt a mini-post, ballooning inevitably happens.

MOOCs are getting a lot of press since last April.  Siva Vaidhyanathan has written quite extensively about MOOCs, but I want to point you to here and here.  Vaidhyanathan writes:

Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference.

He goes on to chastise people for implying that MOOC platforms will be able to cull the rising (exploding?) costs of college tuition.  I love his citing Dan Cohen (who doesn’t love Dan Cohen?!) trying to contextualize the recent MOOC-craze:

“We have been working on synthesizing digital media and technology into the classroom and research for two decades and understand how complex it is, and how you can’t just throw a student into a digital environment,” Cohen wrote to me in an e-mail. “We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan and others recognize that MOOC platforms are just another “tool in the toolbox” for educators.  Many of the “successful” courses on this kind of platform are computational.  How well will a philosophy or history course fare?

The second Chronicle article I linked to makes the point that you still have to be a great educator to have a solid course on a MOOC platform.  Beyond that but in the same vein, finally, here’s another historical take on MOOCs by Bonnie Stewart.  She gives some perspective on massively open courses of the past, using Foucault’s courses as an example.  Her conclusion:

This is the piece that I hope the various institutions currently grappling with the question and challenge of MOOCs take to heart: just using the internet to open another giant free lecture hall? Does not a new learning opportunity make.

I think this is the crux of the issue.  The MOOCs in the news do this: they open up a lecture hall to the Internet for the most part (I know because I’ve taken two courses which I will reflect upon in another post soon).  This is relatively sad.  I am of the opinion that to really learn, students must be exposed to more than audio lectures with content they could find on google or wikipedia.  Educators are not using the platform to its fullest potential, perhaps in their rush to get their courses on this “new” thing.  So, I too am wary of the “Coursera will revolutionize higher ed” mantra.

However, there is *clearly* a movement among the digitally savvy generations to be plugged in, to share, to collaborate, to communicate and to learn online.  And, I’ve heard some argue that in a decade we’ll have some folks foregoing college by learning independently and posting results of projects on an online portfolio.  They’ll get hired by proving their skills and they won’t have the debt.  While true that colleges afford some great experiences that help students learn to balance their lives between commitments, I bet this “develop your online portfolio independently” approach will gain traction in the next decade or so.

I have heard that there are MOOCs out there that are attempting to use networked technologies in ground-breaking ways.  I hope to try one of those courses one of these days to see what that experience is like.

Finally, I’m left with a few questions rattling around in my brain as a student and someone interested in how this will all evolve in the future:  What should a MOOC strive for in educating their students?  What projects and ways of interactions are best enabled by this technology?  How should work be assessed?  How should instructors best manage their time and energy?