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The depressing, but motivating, word count bar is back. It’s going to be slow going while I finish up the sabbatical project over the next few weeks, but then I expect this little word count bar to EXPLODE.
So writing on the new book is stuck in the dull, but necessary, background and theory stuff.  I get to do the TV stuff in a bit which is the whole point of the thing after all.  I’ve finally acquired all three seasons of the underrated Millennium and I’m looking forward to revisiting that, as well as some other short-lived classics like Nowhere Man and Dark Skies.
I’m very pleased that OMNI, the awesome science/fringe-science mag from the 80s and 90s is now available in its entirety through the Internet Archive.  This will be a big help, as they had some good coverage and analysis of the earliest seasons of The X-Files.
I’ve spent some of my time refining my working setup in anticipation of some upcoming travel.  I should say I’ve been wasting my time with this, but it’s kind of sort of necessary, if I squint.  I picked up a new, lightweight, laptop bag from Ikea, which will probably carry my reclaimed-from-wife Thinkpad Edge E420s onto which I’ve loaded Ubuntu (If I can’t have OSX, Linux is fine.  Anything but Windows 8!).
I’ll be back teaching in May, both on campus and online and I’ve been thinking about new stuff to do with that.  Mixlr looks like an interesting tool, allowing free and fairly simple online broadcast.  Not sure what I’d do with it, but a possibly useful resource.
Finally, for now, if you’ve read The Chaos Conundrum, you’ll know that I’m interested in archaeoacoustics.  This story appeared yesterday and it’s great to see Paul Devereaux and his work getting wider attention.  This is a fascinating emerging field.

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Speaking of The Chaos Conundrum, it’s now available as a Kobo ebook in the US from the Kobo Store and in Canada from Chapters/Indigo.  I’ll be on the next episode of Binnall of America audio talking about the book with Tim Binnall—I’ll have a link up when the episode drops.
That’s it for now. I’m off to watch the snow melt…

End of Semester Updates

Fall 2013 is in the books, with grades all submitted.  It was a good one, with a lot of great students, few headaches, and more ideas that worked than didn’t.

This next semester, I’ll be on sabbatical, working on a fairly massive project.  I’ll be creating a set of learning and assessment tools for our four survey classes (US History to 1877/1877 to the Present; World History to 1500/1500 to the present) and setting up an online home for them.  If you’re interested (and I can’t imagine you would be, but still) here is the application document that I submitted almost a year ago.

Talking to people, they seem to think that the hard part will be the website bit.  Actually, I’m pretty convinced that coming up with the actual materials is going to be the hard part!  I’m also not entirely sure that not being in the classroom is going to be that great–I’ll probably be missing it by the end of January.  I’ve also transitioned out of my part time professional development gig to dedicate as much time as possible to the sabbatical project, so that will be a change as well.

Additionally, I’ve got the next book project going, having signed a contract with Rowman & Littlefield to deliver a book for their series on science fiction television.  My volume will examine 1990s paranormal and conspiracy theory-themed television series as well as the ways in which these things appeared in other shows and–in general–seemed to permeate the SFTV world at the time.  Surprisingly, there are a lot of shows out there that have not been examined to any great degree.  This all extended far beyond The X-Files.

In any case, I negotiated a year to finish and deliver the book, due to the sabbatical project being priority one.  There are some other small things cooking as well and the random project name generator has been getting a workout for both announced and un-announced things.  Thus, I’ll be working on and referring to BLACK SCREWDRIVER (the book project), ENDLESS WEATHER (the sabbatical project), SLEDGEHAMMER GOLDEN (secret), EIGHTH WRENCH (secret), and SIENNA SMOKE (secret).

Have a good  Christmas, Yule, Solstice, etc.  Signing off until 2014, except for random photos and automagically generated stuff…

Mac Tonnies: 20 August 1975 – 18 October 2009

macstartimageToday is the anniversary of Mac’s death, four years ago.  He was a huge inspiration–an example of the keenest minds being able to find something interesting and useful in the morass of flying saucerdom.  At the same time, his work always shows us that the keenest minds also know that there is so much more than saucers, abductions, aliens, whatever.

Without Mac’s writing and commentary (as well as the work of of Paul Kimball, Greg Bishop, and others in that general orbit), I probably would have not gotten back into looking at the relationship between paranormal belief, culture, and history.  In a very real way, Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist and the forthcoming Chaos Conundrum are his fault.

711GnZy1n8LWe were the same age, give or take a couple months and he always seemed like a kindred spirit.  I wish I’d been fortunate enough to meet him in meatspace rather than just cyberspace, but I never got to Kansas City and he never got near any of the places I was.  We’d mention it frequently, in email and on Twitter (@mactonnies–I still follow, can’t bring myself to unfollow) but it just never happened.  Like so many other things in 2013, this anniversary is a reminder to just make the trip–see who you need to see when you need to see them.

He wrote extensively online at Posthuman Blues and at his website.  His three books were Illumined Black (a collection of short stories), After the Martian Apocalypse, and the posthumous The Crytoterrestrials.  Paul Kimball has collected, edited, and published the first few years of Posthuman Blues: Dispatches from a World on the Cusp of Terminal Dissolution (for which he very kindly asked me to write an introduction–I’m as proud of it as anything I’ve written).

Four years–in internet time–is a long stretch.  It’s a tribute to Mac’s ideas and words that there are some out there working very hard to keep his memory alive.  Post-Mac Blues is an excellent collection of his work, and Macbots is a very nice memorial site.

As writer Warren Ellis said back in 2002,

Why does anyone write? I want to talk about what I see. I’m compelled to. I understand that all writing, really, is about where the writer is today and what they’re seeing in front of them, and I’m compelled to bring my perception to the table. (source)

Mac did that better than most.  Today, when I read, I’ll be reading his words.

E-Learning and the Community College

And another recent presentation, this time from Network Detroit: Digital Humanities.  With all the MOOC stuff flying around, I wanted to talk a bit about online education and the community college (or at least my community college).  Again, not a polished product and not–honestly–too awfully similar to what I actually said at the event!

Teaching- this turned into kind of a longish thing…

The recently ended 2013 Day of Digital Humanities was a great opportunity for me to take a quick look at what I do in a typical day and how “the digital” intersects with my work.

Being a full-time faculty member at a large community college, my work is first and foremost teaching.  This semester, I’ve got five sections (3 “traditional”, 2 online) and in all of them, I’ve been thinking of ways to change up what I’m doing.  Many of these potential changes involve digital things.  Since the next classes I’m teaching will be compressed 7 1/2 week classes, a rethink is in order, regardless.  Here are some things I’m thinking about (subject to change–few of these ideas will be set in stone before the first day of classes and, maybe, not even then).

Visual Dynamism

I really enjoyed using Google Earth in the classroom (see below) and the students seemed to be more engaged with historical data mapped over satellite imagery than they usually are with the maps that I use.  This got me thinking about other, more visually dynamic ways to present information.  Prezi, of course, is popular, but I can’t afford the amount of Dramamine necessary for me to cope with using it.  There are a variety of interactive timeline tools which may be useful as well.

Get the students to talk more

I’ve been teaching, in one way or another, for around a decade at this point and the biggest weakness I have is–without a doubt–encouraging useful discussion in the classroom.  Whether it’s because I like the sound of my own voice too much (likely) or because the mass of students are intimidated (or annoyed) by the usual handful of students who do 90% of the talking, it’s something that I need to work on.  One key, clearly, is to find ways to ensure that students are familiar enough with material to usefully discuss it.

Exams are terrible

I hate grading them, students hate taking them, and my assurance that they’re the best (or even a good) way to assess students is decreasing every semester.  In my online classes, I’ve been experimenting with weekly cumulative assessment as a way to replace exams in a manner that is relatively low-stress, but “high-yield” (yes, I think of student learning as a field full of soy beans).  It needs tweaking, but I may be on to something.  Or not.

Students, in general, seem to like history, hate history classes

I am, however, teaching a history class, so…yeah.  Problem here.  Working on it.


Over the past few years, I’ve used both BlackBoard and self-hosted websites as a means of digitally-disseminating information to students as well as for recording grades.  This semester, I’ve been using Bb exclusively and while there have been headaches, the students seem to engaged with the material there more than they do on non-Bb sites.  Despite my usability concern with Bb and my desire for more open tools, I also have a compelling need to consider the students.  I’m still thinking this one over.

Omnia Mutantur

Everything changes, all the time.  What works one semester may not work the next.  What works one day might not work the next.  We often have to adjust and adapt to the students to whatever degree that it is practical.  If it is the students who must adjust to us, then we must provide tools to support and guide that change.  Often, we are in the position of having to not only teach our subjects, but also the skills of being a student.  These skills change over time.

These are disconnected thoughts, rather than a solution or manifesto.  There are dozens of books about teaching “today’s” students.  Some of them are worth reading, if only to argue with.  

This ended up longer than I expected.  TIme to hit the publish button and get back to work.


Great Lakes THATcamp 2011–Brief Thoughts

Once again this year I was privileged to participate in Great Lakes THATcamp, held at MSU. Following are a few loosely organized thoughts about the experience.

  • If possible, things were even more friendly and collegial than last year. Great mix of scholars, teachers, librarians, archivists, and museum folks, as well as people whose duties straddled those lines.
  • There seems (to me) to be a reduction in the learning curve on a lot of really cool stuff. For example tools like Broadcastr and WhatWasThere will ease entry to using location-based tools in teaching–especially in getting students to participate in the creation of content. I’m certainly going to try and come up with ways to use these in class this fall.
  • The two bootcamps I attended, on WordPress and Omeka were great. In particular, I really valued learning about some of the guts of WP as well as being introduced to accounts. Again, these are things that will have a direct impact on how I teach.
  • Speaking of teaching, Saturday morning was spent with others who were interested in digital pedagogy, particularly the concept of Massively Open Online Courses.

I’ll probably have more thoughts in time, but all in all, this was a great weekend with great people. I look forward to future such events!

Creating videos for online classes

As much for my own record keeping as anything else, I thought I’d run down how I create video PowerPoints for my online classes.  I use these videos for course content and also to explain, through screen captures, how to accomplish various menial course tasks.

In general, these are some things I like to keep in mind:

  • Each presentation should be no more than 20 minutes–less if possible.  Sometimes this means doing 2 or three separate videos per chapter, broken up topically.  The way our World History text is structured, the individual chapters are pretty large.  For example, for the chapter on 1500-1600, I had three presentations: Exploration and Colonization, The Reformation, and East Asia.
  • Another thing I do is not cover every topic under the sun– the presentations are a supplement to the textbook, not a replacement.  I try to provide broad overviews and explanations to assist the students in comprehending the text.

This is what I do:

  1. Figure out what topics (usually 2 or 3) would be best explained by me talking about them.
  2. Work up a brief PowerPoint presentation on my Macbook with enough bullets to give me talking points as I record.  I try to include as many maps as possible as well, and I use the slide-show’s “pen” feature during recording to explain geographical stuff.
  3. Review the slide-show a few times, sketching out what I want to talk about, relating it to things I’m not talking about (that they’ll read in the book) and–hopefully–tie everything together.
  4. Record.  I use Techsmith’s Camtasia: Mac for recording.  It’s affordable ($99), made by a local company (Techsmith is down the road in Okemos, MI) and works incredibly well.  Although the mic built into the Macbook is pretty good, I added a Samson Go Mic ($50).
  6. Edit. Camtasia’s editing functions are excellent and pretty intuitive.  Usually, I only need to trim the beginnings and endings of the video so students don’t have to sit through me switching between windows and such.
  7. Sometimes, when I’ve got some time or am bored, I make some goofy intro music with Garageband and my M-Audio O2 MIDI controller.
  8. Export.  We use Blackboard for our online course management, but uploading videos directly into the course shell can be a hassle.  One thing I like about Camtasia is that it will create ready-made webpages with your video embedded into them as Flash.  I use that feature to render the videos.
  9. Upload.  I upload the folders containing the video and associated HTML code to my school-supplied webspace using Flow.
  10. Link.  I provide a link to students in the chapter’s Blackboard folder.  So far, I haven’t had students running into tech problems with this.

That’s basically what I do.  It’s, clearly, not the only way to do it.  It might not even be the best way to do it.