Category Archives: Reflections

Hollywood Cemetery – Preliminary Thoughts

Hollywood Cemetery

I’m pretty excited about a new project we’ll be working on this year. We’re going to look at a local historically significant, but still active, cemetery through a variety of disciplinary lenses. Hollywood Cemetery is the permanent home of two presidents of the USA (James Monroe and John Tyler) and one president of the CSA as well as a variety of other interesting local people. Dr. Ryan Smith from VCU’s history department has already had students doing quite a bit of work with local cemeteries. Back Story also recently republished a podcast (Grave Matters) which mentions Hollywood cemetery quite a bit and is all kinds of good. Even the Girl Scouts have some great information on Hollywood Cemetery1. So that brings up the question- What can we do that hasn’t been done and how can we make this something really valuable to the community- both locally and at large?

SA Lacy

The Players and Their Lenses

Looking through the lens of sociology, Dr. Susan Bodnar-Deren will be helping us think through work around mortality, social status etc. by analyzing the data from gravestones.2 Dr. Bernard Means will be bringing an archaeological3 and 3D imaging background4 that he has honed in VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab. Dr. Ryan Smith will round out our professorial group with his focus on history. I will be playing the motley fool who is trying to create workflows, repositories, and visualizations of these data that make sense and are useful. In the end we hope to have the potential for at least one, and possibly more, interdisciplinary courses that focus on Hollywood Cemetery. Additionally we will create an interactive, informative, and interesting way for a variety of audiences to interact with the information we gather.

Open to the  public

I think that universities should focus more on how they take advantage of where they are geographically and use their courses to create value for students and community members because of their location. It is rare for non-educational organizations to have the energy, people, and time to attack a project like this. VCU is only minutes from so many historic areas. We could do a lot of good. Location is part of what makes VCU unique as a university. Here is a chance, one of many, to create real value for scholars and community members while driving student learning in valuable and interesting ways. Win, win, and win.

SA Lacy

Data

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Implied/Defined Gender – guess based on the name or defined through statements like “wife of/husband of”

There’s the obvious data associated with grave markers (although even this varies a good bit).
From this we should be able to figure out the age at death and we should be able to divide the data by quarter decades and see it broken down by gender. I need to think through how make this most efficient technically. Currently, I’ve been playing with a Gravity Forms to WordPress post solution and then pulling the birth/death data from the Gravity Forms database. It may be more sensible to do that another way, maybe custom post types and custom metadata.

There’s also an entirely different world of additional data that reflects everything from the time period and religion to economic class and the age of the deceased. I need to consider the way this data will be used and the workflow in gathering it so that we get what makes sense with as little pain as possible. It is interesting how quickly I find I need better, more specific words than I currently have. Taxonomic considerations like this are always interesting. It may be that a chunk of these don’t matter but I find it helpful to start big and then slim down.

  • Type of marker – statuary? marker? mausoleum/shrine?
  • Construction material – limestone vs granite vs iron
  • Size
  • Iconography – engraved or the shape of the marker itself, same/different as other stones within the plot/locally
  • Stone location – family plot, top of the hill etc.
  • Epitaph
  • Descriptors – wife of, son of, etc.

The key is trying to think through how people will want to see and interact with this information. We have lots of audiences and I’d like to make a number of them happy through different interfaces but we’ll need the core data to do that. It’ll also be important to think through how to deal with incomplete data- grave markers without birth dates for instance.

Hollywood Cemetery Map

I can see at least three main interfaces – one would be focused on the grave markers themselves (something very visual with some sorting/filtering options), another interface would be built around an aerial view of the cemetery (current map is pictured above), and the third would be a data focused interface which may be modeled after GapMinder.

There would also be the possibility of writing posts that reference various grave markers in the collection. If we leave trackbacks on, we should be able to automatically interweave the resources (individual grave makers) with larger understandings/narratives simply by linking back to them in the larger analysis posts. I think that simple but also pretty interesting. It’d also be interesting to see how and how frequently different grave markers are used over time.


1 Warning- Word document

2 Already, I feel the need for better vocabulary. Grave marker maybe?

3 His Death and Burial course sounds pretty awesome.

4 Incorporating these types of files has led to all sorts of interesting 3D js library exploration.

Catching Baby Turtles

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When I was in 4th or 5th grade we lived in Columbia, South Carolina not too far from one of those man-made subdivision lakes.1 Despite that, it had enough fish and reptiles to keep me very entertained. One of the memories that stuck in my mind from the couple of years we lived there was seeing, and eventually catching, baby turtles. I spent several hours lying on my stomach watching the turtles, inching forward, scaring them away, and then waiting again hoping they’d bob up somewhere within arms reach. If you’ve ever tried to spot a tiny turtle’s head in the midst of duckweed, green algae, and assorted pond flotsam (no jetsam)2 I felt pretty proud when I finally caught a few. I let them go and I washed my hands thoroughly when I got home.

This was the second year (non-consecutive) I remembered to do this with my kids. It’s one of those things that’s easy to forget but I love seeing my kids enjoying what I once did. Plus, it’s still fun for me as well. We end up looking a bit odd I’m sure as, once again, we’re using a subdivision pond not far from our house and we tend to go barefoot.

This year we caught two older and larger turtles. Both seemed to have heavy layers of algae growing on the shells3 which makes them pretty slippery. It’s also a surprise to grab a turtle like that for the first time because their first move is push hard with their legs against your hands. It’s one of those shock things, like a lizard biting you, that even when it doesn’t hurt you tend to react by dropping them. We lost one or two that way but got the hang of it pretty quickly.

No life lessons. No attempt to connect it to education. Just a pleasant time I wanted to document and officially letting you know it’s the right time of year (at least in VA) if you want to give it a shot alone or with kids.

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Bigger turtle catch

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1 It still amazes me that I can just link that in.

2 I do not refer to the official nautical law meanings. Consider this poetic license.

3 Ms. Carapace if you’re nasty.

What Teachers Make?

I know I head further out on the fringe each hour of each day but I’ve always had a problem with the Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make“. I’m sure you’ve seen it on facebook or on some email forward.

Essentially, he’s responding to a jackass at a dinner party who’s criticizing teachers and I’m ok with that but the details of the response anger me. It is most of what I dislike about teaching.

I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­? feel like a slap in the face.

Grades. I hate grades.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?
I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:

Such command, such control, such an amazing ability to see another human’s bladder level, all that and instilling fear in parents- how proud we must be of our mastery.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

Perhaps the saddest line for parents.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.

This is almost positive other than the fact that ever sentence starts with “I make”.

I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.

And I know it’s a poem and I’d give license poetic or otherwise if this wasn’t really an embodiment of how most teaching works. Fear, force, reward, coercion in endless cycles and all, of course, for the best. It is for the children. Their shiftless beasts and will run amuck1 if not forced to do right.

It just seems strange to me. If education really worked well I’d see a different world. I’d see less depression, less poverty, less mindless pursuit of profit . . . I’d see people proudly saying how much school made them realized they loved reading/math/science/history. Far too many people I meet tell me they’re awful at math, hate reading, are no good at science. I don’t believe them but the guilt and lessons are sunk in deep.

Mali could have said I make the very people who don’t recognize the value of teachers at dinner parties.


1 1. A name for: a frenzied Malay. (Found first in Portuguese form amouco, amuco.) – OED etymology

LMS Metaphors

Blackboard/LMS is like a -

It seems there are whole papers written on metaphors for Blackboard.

I saw Jon’s LMS-as-training-wheels metaphor and Britt’s response- both as a result of Jim’s talk. I’ve been thinking about it a bit and I think it ends up giving the LMS the wrong kind of credit. It implies a temporary guide, a training ground to get you used to using the Internet to teach. I don’t think that’s the goal at all.

Ronald M.D.

It seems to me that the LMS is a fast-food franchise kitchen. It does exactly what it is meant to do. It is built for people with minimal skills to make cheap food quickly at scale. It isn’t meant to be a training ground so people can move up to gourmet cooking. These skills don’t transfer. You aren’t even meant to graduate to being a line cook at Friday’s.

The LMS reaches the minimum quality people will tolerate in exchange for convenience and low cost.1 The LMS focuses on making the very things I find most problematic easy. Blackboard tells you what it thinks is most important for teachers with their own lead copy.

Efficient Teaching Tasks
Blackboard Learn enhances basic teaching tasks like grading and creating assessments. And with an intuitive design, this is one LMS that will save you time in and out of the classroom. – love Bb

It’s pretty clear why Bb exists. Every bit of that language reeks of unpleasant things done efficiently at scale.

Now you can take fast food and do big campaigns about serving up some semi-healthy stuff. You even have people with energy and creativity using fast food ingredients to make gourmet food. But when it comes down to it, the ingredients, the hardware, the thinking behind the layout is focused entirely on a scale delivery of certain kind of “food” and that purpose drives most everything that will ever happen in a fast food kitchen.2

It’s also pretty clear that our society is perfectly ok with fast food. We eat liquid meat paste after all. Putting multiple hundreds of students in a class, the wild popularity of video/quiz MOOCs, certainly indicate we have a very low bar for education. Most people have not had much but fast food education and any move away is likely to create dissatisfaction of various kinds.

Zombie Ordering at McDonald's

Anyone can put content online now. I think YouTube comments prove that conclusively. If not, there’s always Literally Unbelievable or your 2nd grader of choice. So the technical threshold the LMS was supposed to get faculty over isn’t really there but the LMS ceiling remains. There’s no real bump coming into the LMS but be prepared to stoop the entire time you’re in it. It does make scale assessment easy. It does put the focus clearly on grades and an ever tightening feedback loop. It does allow us to scale faculty to greater and greater numbers of students.

The LMS tool shapes what faculty think they can and should do both online and off. It shapes how courses are designed,3 how assessments are designed. It shapes what students and parents expect. It shapes how Universities structure course loads and enrollment. It shapes far too many things in a reciprocal loop of “practical” choices and low bars. That’s a terrible thing to standardize. The LMS is a symptom of larger issues, a cause of larger issues, and a way of understanding these issues. That scares me. The “solution” that contributes to the problem it solves is a hard one to untangle when it’s enmeshed in the understanding of the problem like this. Yet we keep bringing more people into it, becoming more reliant while simultaneously limiting the understandings and aspirations that would enable us to do something different.


1 Choose your own cost metric.

2 I will opt not to explore the horrific things that take place in fast food kitchens.

3 Many sites built outside of Bb in other tools look just . . . like . . . Blackboard courses.