CRSs in the Humanities: Engaging the Short Attention Span

Posted in Technology with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2013 by Bola C. King-Rushing

[Repost from my 4/28/10 entry at The Active Class]

Your lecture is scheduled for 50, 75, perhaps 90 minutes. Maybe it’s a topic the students like, or you have a popular course, and they file into the room buzzing with anticipation. After 20 minutes or so, you feel the room’s energy starting to fade. Students are texting, reading the paper, checking Facebook, or just spacing out. Sooner or later, whether we like it or not, and regardless of class size, it happens. When it does, or possibly before we even get to that point, we often start thinking about “student engagement.”

“Engaging  students” can signify many things. It might be about presentation style; maybe you are as much a showman as a lecturer. It might be about the “hook,” as you find intriguing or controversial ways to introduce and discuss a topic. Or it might be about making the students interact, whether it’s with you, with the material, or with each other. No matter what path to engagement you prefer, it usually boils down to getting and keeping students’ attention.

Clickers are one way to increase engagement; this benefit has been widely reported, both anecdotally and empirically, especially in science and social-science courses. The large lectures standard in those fields are generally less common in the humanities, although we’re seeing larger class sizes and the transformation of some seminars into lectures in the face of budget crises. How might clickers help us engage students in the humanities, especially in larger courses?

One of the universal uses of clickers is to punctuate a lecture and vary its pacing. Stopping the lecture every 10-15 minutes for a clicker question or two serves several purposes. It can wake the students up just when they might be starting to fade away. They are then are forced to become more active in responding to (and presumably thinking about) a question. Even when clicker participation constitutes a small fraction of the total course grade, students will often pay more attention to the lecture when there are coveted points at stake. Even those students who usually resist engagement in class—those whom Graham et al. call “reluctant participators”—will participate.

Clicker questions can also be used to lessen the amount of actual lecturing that we do. The responses to a question can spur discussion; depending on the class size, you can either turn the lecture hall into a large discussion section, or you can allow the students time to talk things over in pairs or small groups. Peer instruction of this sort goes hand-in-hand with clicker systems. The interactivity can reinvigorate a class in just a few minutes.

In many humanities courses, we’re examining cultural or political issues from particular points of view. Another way to engage students is to use the clicker questions to set the scene or to create both relevance and interest. A colleague of mine, in an attempt to introduce the ideas of consumer culture and symbols, asked her class what kinds of things they did with their Barbie dolls when they were young. She used a handful of responses to create an impromptu clicker survey that showed most people engaging in similar activities. The students realized that “culture” was not just an abstract idea, but something they have a direct relationship with.

Another type of pre-question is the opinion poll. A controversial issue—of which there is no shortage in humanities classes—can be introduced with a question asking to what degree the students agree or disagree with a position. Once they have expressed an opinion, students often feel that they have a vested interest in the discussion, whether it is to defend their own ideas or to learn about others. As it becomes clear that the lecture content or assigned reading has a direct bearing on the issue at hand, this increased investment makes the material more real to them. These and other types of questions can help students connect with the topic at hand, giving them a stake in the discussion—and a reason to pay better attention.

Attention is the name of the game. It’s a no-brainer, but the more students pay attention, the more they’ll learn from a lecture. They will also enjoy the course more, which can create a positive energy-feedback loop for instructors. We know that it’s not easy to hold a student’s attention for an hour.  Breaking the lecture up and making the time investment more personal for students will make things a lot easier for both students and instructors.

For more information on clickers and engagement:

Bart, Mary. “Can Clickers Enhance Student Learning?Faculty Focus. 18 Nov. 2009.

Bruff, Derek. “Engaging Students with Clickers.” Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. 1-38. Print.

Butchart, Sam, Toby Handfield, and John Bigelow. Peer Instruction in the Humanities. Strawberry Hills: The Carrick Inst for Learning and Teaching in Higher Ed, 2007. Print.

Draper, Steve W., and Margaret I. Brown. “Increasing Interactivity in Lectures Using an Electronic Voting System.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 20: 81-94. Print.

Graham, Charles R., Tonya R. Tripp, Larry Seawright and George L. Joeckel III. “Empowering or Compelling Reluctant Participators Using Audience Response Systems.” Active Learning in Higher Education 8.3: 233-58. Print.

Patry, Marc. “Clickers in Large Classes: From Student Perceptions towards an Understanding of Best Practices.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 3.2 (July 2009).

AIDS Walk is Saturday!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 20, 2011 by Bola C. King-Rushing

So the Ventura County AIDS Walk for Life is this Saturday the 22nd, at Plaza Park in Ventura (that’s at the corner of Chestnut & Thompson), from 9-1. Aside from the walk, there will be a rally and generally good times with great people. Be there!

If you haven’t given your support to anyone yet, you can make a donation to our team – Never Walk Alone – by going online to – Keri has set up the team’s fundraising site there.

You can also go to VCAP’s blog to post a comment about why you’re walking, or why you would if you could, or just to share your story or some thoughts or some love.

  Song of the Moment: "Celebration," Kool & the Gang END OF LINE

Here’s a new gig

Posted in General with tags , , on September 14, 2011 by Bola C. King-Rushing

So, I’ve got a new gig: I’m the volunteer editor of the Ventura County AIDS Partnership‘s new blog over at

For me, this is a new direction for an old set of skills. Foremost among these is editing; I have been a print editor in the past, focusing on grammar, style, and consistency among multiple authors. I think this project also counts as digital humanities/social sciences, as we’re trying to build an online community. Finally, I’m using regular old planning and organizational skills to pull the whole thing together.

Check it out! Subscribe, comment, participate if you’re so inclined. I’m hoping this project will also get me going on this blog again. I haven’t had a lot of kvetching to do, and I’ve been très busy with work, dissertation, and life in general, but I’d like to get back into blogging. Wish me luck!

Song of the moment: "Own the Night," Chaka Khan

Alternative Career Choices for English PhDs

Posted in General, School with tags , , on April 8, 2011 by Bola C. King-Rushing

This is an update of an essay I wrote while studying at UCSB. I was becoming disillusioned with the prospect of becoming a professor. Since then, several people have found it helpful, so I thought I’d share it here. Feel free to add your own ideas…

The PhD program in English is, in many ways, an apprenticeship: you are being taught by English professors to use their tools and processes with the ultimate goal of becoming an English professor. But there are other options, other paths that are open to you, that you might take for any of a number of reasons.

Continue reading

More on the dissertation

Posted in School with tags , , , on February 5, 2010 by Bola C. King-Rushing

Communication theory. I find it fascinating, to the point that I sometimes feel like I’m in the wrong field. Well, sometimes.

I’m looking at Media Choice models. Specifically, I’m working on finding a way to translate one (or parts of several) into a model that will help analyze the choices that Second Life landowners make in designing their spaces. The area that informs this thinking is Media Richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1984). However, it turns out that there are a whole lot of “refinements” to Media Richness, and it’s hard to decide which way to go. Social influence is definitely worth looking at, and I feel drawn to Channel Expansion. But can we make a reasonable analogy between the choice of a communication channel on one hand and design decisions on the other?

I feel like the answer should be “yes.” There’s something about the symbolism involved in each that, I think, can be transferred into a common (or at least parallel) language using semiotics. But at the moment, this is just a fledgling thought.

Does it even sound doable, let alone reasonable? More to come…

Song of the moment: "Stand," R.E.M.


Posted in General with tags , on November 23, 2009 by Bola C. King-Rushing

Does it make me a bad person if I still giggle with glee at the memory of Christian Bale’s Batmobile being destroyed?

I’m not sure why it is, but I still feel a visceral disgust at that abominable vehicle. I don’t think I’ve felt so strongly about an automobile before, at least not negatively. It was just…so completely ugly. There was nothing, in my opinion, remotely pretty about it.

Except its being broken.

I suppose you could say that it did have a positive effect on me: I could not have gotten so much joy out of its destruction if it had never been created in the first place. But something about that logic strikes me as not quite right.

Forgive me for beating a dead horse (or a dead Batmobile). I just needed to get that out, I guess.

Song of the Moment: "Say Hey (I Love  You)," Michael Franti & Spearhead


Digital Humanities

Posted in General, School with tags , , on November 23, 2009 by Bola C. King-Rushing

So I’m involved in this year’s HASTAC community, and I’ve done a little blogging over there. This is a repost of one of those–it got a great response, and I thought the conversation was worth bringing over here. Apologies to those who’ve already seen and / or responded to it.

“What Are We Doing, Anyway?” (11/13/09)

I’d like to revisit Amanda Visconti’s blog post about the must-have technical skills for a digital humanist.

Our department’s Literature.Culture.Media Center was fortunate enough to be visited by Dr. Patrik Svensson today. Of course, I had class and then a meeting during his talk, but I was able to make the reception afterward and hear him talk about digital humanities–and, in particular, the state of the field.

Or lack thereof. It turns out that “digital humanities” is, like most things humanities, a slippery thing to define. Do you remember when it was “humanities computing”? Do you remember even further back, when it was just a humanist who knew a little about Unix, HTML, or C+?

But to get to the point: what are we doing when we claim to be “digital humanists”? We are clearly not all doing the same thing, or (I suspect) even on the same page at least part of the time. So what would you say to someone from the “outside” if they asked you what you mean by digital humanities?

Part of my reason for asking is that, even though I’m in an English department, my dissertation has slid significantly into the social sciences by way of online virtual worlds. I keep my humanist focus, at least in my own mind, by steadfastly sticking to qualitative methodologies. But my digital credibility–well, I’m not so sure where I stand. I use a lot of technology, and I understand a lot about its technical underpinnings, but coding left me behind right about when amateur programmers switched from PASCAL to C. Yes indeed, that was a very long time ago.

Thus, I consider myself part of the DH universe mostly because my object of study (virtual worlds) is digital, and I approach the analysis of it from a humanities or humanist perspective.

But that’s just one approach. As implied by Amanda’s blog post, the DH universe also includes those people who do humanities with digital tools, often creating said tools themselves with their programming prowess. Is that enough? How digital do you have to be, or how humanities, to be considered DH? Is it even right to try to fit such disparate activities under a single categorical umbrella?

One pragmatic / cynical way to look at it is in terms of fads and funding. The money (what little there is) is in digital humanities, so we have an interest in being considered digital humanists. But when the money turns its attention elsewhere in a few years, what will we have left?

What are we doing? What are you doing, and why do you call it digital humanities?

Song of the Moment: "Do You Love Me," The Contours

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