Lessons learned from the experience.

Being a student again for an intense two weeks was a very transformative experience.  Some conclusions about teaching and learning from this experience:

  • research is hard; writing is harder
  • community and collegiality are important in this process.  The fact that there were 30 other students going through this same process, and 4 people in the exact same class, meant that I could always find a sympathetic ear.  I also got ideas for sources from other students.
  • the structure of the student experience is very important.  I could see how the professor wanted us to develop our understanding of the literature around different topics.  I was also able to see how the questions he created shaped my point of view on the issues.
  • questions are key.  Good questions help students think; bad ones stymie the process.
  • organization of notes and reading materials are incredibly important.
  • libraries are still really useful in the digital age, even if only as funnels for access to specific digital sources.


Places where I studied - skip this is photos of libraries bore you.

The University of Oxford is made up of a number of individual colleges, which have both individual libraries and workspaces and access to the university wide library system.  This means there were a large number of very different, quirky and old places to work and study.


St Antony's College library - this Oxford college has buildings that were formerly part of a convent. The college's library used to be a church.  I wrote a substantial part of the final paper in this space.

la MW5A5809_0.jpg

The Latin American Centre's library is made up of two rooms - one of which was the classroom for the course.  I spent some afternoons using the public opinion survey databases available here.


Almost got tossed out of the library for this photo. This is the oldest reading room in the oldest Oxford library, and I hadn't noticed the No Photography sign. This space was built in the 15th century.  I wrote a bunch of my paper here as well.

The medieval building where this reading room is found (the Old Bodleian library) is connected underground to another 18th century library building.  The connecting tunnel looks like a spaceship; the 18th century library is a circular building that looks like a church (Radcliffe camera). Go figure.  I studied in both spaces at various points.

The final paper

As I mentioned before, this course was organized around 20 questions.  The paper assignment was to submit a 2000 word paper on day 7 (out of 10) of the course.  The paper topic had to be one of the 20 questions. Since I intend to teach Chile next year, I chose the one question on Chile:

On almost all economic and political indicators Chile looks better than any other country in Latin America. Why then is there cause for concern over the quality of democracy in Chile?

Choosing this question was a bit of a strategic mistake for a 10 day course.  This question was on the syllabus for day 8 - the day after the paper was due.  That meant I needed to find time to do reading for classes and time to research and write this paper.  But I did it.

My first solution to this was to start reading before the class started, which I did.  I waited until Thursday of the first week to start really researching,  finding additional materials, and outlining an initial response to the question.

As my first political science paper, on a country whose language I don't speak, I wondered about using primary sources.  Some of the articles that I read used elaborate data analyses for what appeared to be no real purpose.  I guess I don't have enough faith in math to see the point in creating a numerical value to measure the quality of democracy or some other broad concept.  I didn't have access to such data, the math skills to make up coefficients of blah blah something or other, or an idea of why this was meaningful in the first place. I ended up using some ideas from an article by Patricio Navia called "Living in Actually Existing Democracies: Democracy to the Extent Possible in Chile" from the Latin American Research Review in 2010.  (This article used ideas from a book that I read parts of afterward, by Alan Angell called Democracy After Pinochet. But I read the Navia piece first.)  This article uses data on participation in elections and uses public opinion surveys.  In a different kind of paper, I would have included more discussion of the significant limitations in using both of these types of data as sources, but for this shorter work I just went with it.  I ended up using news reports in English as well.

I wrote two general sets of notes that could be called an outline.  I never outlined papers until graduate school, and then realized, duh, they are super useful.  Even though my actual writing often doesn't follow the outline directly, having to sit and think things through means that once I start writing, the words will just flow.

And the words did flow.  My typed outline was about 1000 words long (with quotes, etc), and my first full day of writing (on Saturday) ended with 1953 words.  But I was only halfway through what I had intended to address in the paper.  So I pulled a classic student move - I wrapped up what I was saying, added a conclusion, and called it a day.  The paper in the end was 3100 words, and written in what amounted to 14 hours or so of writing, after who knows how much time reading.  

What did I do, in the end?  I DID NOT COMPLETELY UNPACK THE QUESTION.  Really?  How often have I commented on student writing for not fully addressing the question asked?  Ugh.  The question has two parts:

On almost all economic and political indicators Chile looks better than any other country in Latin America. I took this statement as a given, rather than thinking about it at all.  I found some evidence to show that by economic indicators, Chile was doing well, but did not think about the political indicators part of the question.

Why then is there cause for concern over the quality of democracy in Chile? I spent most of the paper addressing only this aspect of the question.  However, I really only partially answered the question.  Sigh.

However, I did very well in the class and received a high score on the paper and in the class.  But still.

iPad vs computer and keeping track of information and sources

I used this course as a test to see if I needed to buy a laptop or if I could work using an iPad.  I bought an iPad years ago with this in mind, but never really needed to at BSGE because I had access to a desktop Mac that I could use for 99% of what I needed a computer for at work.  I ended up often being unable to use the iPad to connect to LCD projectors, but I just borrowed a school laptop and moved on.

For this course, I borrowed a bluetooth keyboard for iPads, downloaded the microsoft word app (I still like word better than google docs for formatting - yes, I am An Old™), connected everything to Dropbox, made sure I had a stylus to write with for the Notability app, and headed out.

This all worked beautifully for 98% of what I needed to do.  I was perfectly able to type on the small keyboard, format my paper appropriately, annotate and organize my digital sources.  My major frustration was the inability to open two apps or two files at the same time on the iPad - I couldn't look at my digital annotations or highlights of articles at the same time as the paper in word; I couldn't look at my outline or typed notes and the paper at the same time.  I used some work arounds for this:

  • In Notability, you can circle part of a document and copy it as an image.  So I would circle parts of articles and insert them into the word document I was writing in so that I could see both at the same time.  (I deleted the images when they were no longer necessary.)
  • Once I discovered there was free printing, I printed a few pages of documents so that I could see them while I was typing
  • I would open some documents on my phone while I was typing on the iPad

In the end, I used the iPad for most of the writing of my final paper and for making daily preparation notes on each day's reading.  I ended up going to the computer lab and using their computers to finish the final formatting (changing the font for footnotes and page numbers is a pain on the word iPad app), and to access some specialized information databases in the Bodleian libraries.  Because I was using the iPad, I was unable to experiment with browser extensions like Zotero for source and bibliography support.  So I had to rely on my memory for this.  For a single course and a single paper, this was fine.


Paper vs digital and notetaking

Another aspect of taking a reading and research intensive class is keeping track of everything.  Where is the reading?  Did you actually read it?  Do you have notes on a separate page or document?  How do you pull together ideas for a paper?

I learned to do research in the pre-internet but early digital materials and sources era.  I therefore learned to look for books and journal article names in a digital database, but then had to read the books or journal articles on paper.  Which meant tons of photocopying or stacks of books.  Primary sources were documents reprinted in book collections.  (Most of my undergraduate and graduate study was about medieval Europe; therefore no newspaper, magazine or other kinds of sources were available.  The actual sources were all in archives somewhere in Europe and utterly inaccessible.)  I read the books and made some notes on paper, but mostly kept what I'd learned in my head.  I wrote out some quotes if I thought I'd use them.  For photocopies, I highlighted the crap out of them but otherwise didn't take notes. Creating a bibliography and citations involved looking at my Chicago manual reference book and each of the sources.  And hoping that I had written down the correct information on the photocopies I'd made.

All of this is now outdated and inefficient.  For this course, I put together way too much information to try to keep the main ideas in my head.  And the digital methods of reading sources helped quite a bit as well.

I am a huge fan of using my iPad like a notebook.  Meaning I handwrite on my iPad all the time.  The assigned reading for this course was on an 11 page syllabus, and a large number of the readings were journal articles.  I downloaded the majority of the journal articles and annotated them on my iPad.  The readings that were chapters from books were photocopied, though I did scan a few of them.  

I found myself highlighting less and annotating more than I used to.  (As the course moved on and I had more and more reading, I highlighted more and annotated less.  But overall I wrote much more on my readings than I've ever done in the past.)  The writing ended up being incredibly useful.  I was able to go back to my annotations because those were the places where I made connections between various authors and ideas.  Those connections were the basis for the thinking and discussion during class and the paper that I wrote.

Annotations on paper documents:

page from Navia article annotated.jpeg

Printed journal article - notes were written on paper and include info looked up on topics I needed more information on.

Highlights and annotations completed on the Notability app on the iPad:

My own presentations

My first presentation was on something I had some thoughts about before my arrival:

Are recent democratic transitions in Latin America better explained by domestic or international factors? (I asked a version of this question to my 12th graders last year at BSGE- my answer will be a bit more complex)

My strategy for approaching this question was as follows.  

First, I needed to do as much of the reading as I could.  This presentation was on the second day of class.  The course schedule was a two hour seminar from 9-11am, a 90 minute lecture on a very current international topic, not necessarily related to the course from 11.30-1pm, and independent study time from 1.45-5.30, and then a discussion session on the day's lecture from 5.30-6.30.  Dinner ended at 7.30, and after that there was time to continue working if need be.  This schedule didn't allow enough time to read all 10-14 items for the class, so I had to be strategic.  But for the presentations, I needed to read as much as humanly possible.  So here's what I read for the first question:



I downloaded as many articles as I could from databases or from the internet.  The large majority of what I could access digitally I downloaded before I arrived.  One of those articles was by an scholar whose work we kept coming back to - Scott Mainwaring.  I downloaded the article form the list on the transition to democracy in Brazil.  Since I had this article digitally, I uploaded it to the app Notability, and annotated it on the iPad.  (This way I didn't have to print out thousands of pages.) A sample of my annotations of this article: 


You will notice that many of the annotations mention other people. I tried to be present and active in reading everything - noting sources that were in conversation with each other, making connections, and asking questions.  Some of the questions asked were never answered, some of them were.  

Once I read as many of the pieces as I could,  I organized a set of notes and used those notes to speak for about 10 minutes on this issue. I set the stage for the discussion rather than answering the question.  


My notes document is 830 words long.  In other classes offered in the same summer session, a number of people created elaborate powerpoints and spoke for 20 to 30 minutes, giving definitive answers and arguments about their topics.  I am really glad that this was not my experience.  

But I felt like I organized ideas well, made sense when I presented, and didn't skip obviously crucial points.  So my mission was accomplished...  

(For what it's worth, my final answer was that domestic factors were in the end more significant.) 

Structuring a course

This course was structured around 20 questions, as I've mentioned before.  Now that I have completed the experience, I can think about the questions, the limitations and how I can use this in my own classroom (cue evil henchman laugh here) .

For each two hours seminar session, two questions were assigned.  A reading list of 5-7 pieces were assigned for each question.  The person who presented on each question was responsible for setting the stage for the whole class discussion - unpacking the question, reviewing the ideas of the scholars assigned, etc.  In practice, this meant that only one person had actually done all of the reading for the question, because there was too much reading to be done on any one day.

Having one person who has knowledge about the topic, and other people who had their own ideas about the topics derived from a few of the readings and their own ideas or experiences, made the discussions possible.  Sometimes the professor had to fill in ideas or connections that we hadn't made.  Or explained ideas from readings that no one had a chance to do.  But the fundamental approach was an interesting and deliberate one. 

For my building democracy course in the fall, I want to follow a similar structure.  While this won't be feasible for all days (since some days are test days, work days, etc), for most days of the course I can come up with one or two guiding questions.  I have taught a version of this course before, so I have some good questions to work with.  I also intend to model some questions from those used in the course.  Students will be assigned at the very beginning of the semester to specific questions.  As homework before that day, the student assigned to the question will be asked to write a short response to the question (250-500 words) and to expect that they will be looked to in class at the Resource Person (Point Person?) on the issue.  I need to come up with a name for this, just for convenience's sake.  But I think anchoring the course around student work for each day would be very helpful.  I have thought about doing something like this before, but didn't feel like I could structure the questions far enough in advance.  I feel like I can do this for next year.  

I was a bundle of intense anxiety about my presentations.  I don't want to create this kind of anxiety in my students, but in some ways I do.  I definitely paid attention to, and tried to think though, the readings much more carefully on my presentation days.  So how to create a structure like this without intense anxiety, but a more reasonable nervousness?   How to support students through an expereince like this - my support was being able to complaint and vent with classmates at meals and after school, but there was no guidance or help in presenting.  I wouldn't want to do presentations each day, but to have the Point Person be the person who answers questions will cause anxiety itself, I bet.  

I guess if the list of questions is determined really early, the list of readings should be as well.  That would give me the opportunity to meet with students in advance if they had questions on the topic.  That may be the solution,  Though how much time I will have for this, I don't know. 


Day 1 - Observations

[You may notice the publication date on this, which was the last, not first, day of the course.  I was so overwhelmed and so busy with the class that I did not post during the course.  So this was 85% at the end of day one - the last 15% was on day 10...]

Some observations after the first part of one day:

I didn't realize that library practice was something I've developed over my life.  Most interactions with libraries are with circulating libraries - you show up, find a book, get permission to take it home and go on your merry way.  I have made use of the main research library at the New York Public Library, where most of their collection is not on open access shelves but are instead to be requested in advance and delivered for your use in a reading room.  The main reading room is a gorgeous old looking high ceiling decorated-ish space.  You generally need to wait for 30 minutes to access most of the books that someone like me (not really a scholar) would use.  

I have made use of the collections, very briefly, of major libraries of deposit - the Library of Congress, the National Library of Scotland.  I've never had access to a collection as vast and old as the University of Oxford.  This university is enormous, and very diffuse,  Each of its colleges has its own, sometimes very ancient, libraries, and the university itself has its own system of libraries as well.  I am now the proud owner of a reader card for the Bodleian libraries for two weeks.  I had to swear an oath to get this card:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

I had to swear this out loud.  Everyone else in the class had to as well - in whatever language they so chose.  Of the four courses being offered at this summer school, students come from all over the world and speak a variety of languages.  I heard this oath sworn today in Spanish, Polish, Greek, Turkish, Russian and Hungarian.  And there may have been other languages that I didn't hear. 

The collection is so enormous that I know I will barely scratch the surface of it.  The system is a library of deposit for the UK, meaning they get a copy of every book published in the country.  Of course, many of them are in a storage space miles away, and it may take up to 5 days to get those books.  But what they have on the shelves of the various libraries is also astounding. 

A huge part of my experience here I expect to revolve around libraries.  It should be very interesting.  I didn't know that I was working up to this my whole life!


Primariest of primary sources

I went to Stonehenge for the second time on Friday morning.  When I visited England in April, I decided to go to Stonehenge because, well, it's famous and I hadn't been there.  I didn't have any romantic notions about Druids or aliens building it or anything, or any deep interest in such ancient history in Europe.  However, visiting the site - which is both smaller and much larger than I realized - was really inspiring and powerful. 

The stones that you see in pictures of Stonehenge are a small part of a much larger site.  There are burial mounds, areas that were villages for builders, and an enormous field which includes a clear set of pathways and mounds.  It goes on for miles.  The stone circle itself is fenced off, and a bit smaller in circumference than at least I imagined. 

My visit in April took place on a warm and sunny day, and I learned an enormous amount about Neolithic culture, the limits of archeology in telling us stories about the past, and the way that the past can be forgotten so easily.  Stonehenge has been a mystery to those near it for the large majority of its history. 

When I received the scholarship for the Oxford course, I realized that I could visit Stonehenge again.  This time I took a special early morning tour where 30 people at a time are allowed into the stone circle itself.  While the weather was not as beautiful (I forgot that England doesn't really have summer as I know it and didn't have quite enough clothes), the experience was even more profound. 

In an odd way, this reminded me of seeing the Klan robe in Memphis.  What is this stone circle?  It's rocks.  Rocks, lichen and grass.  Nothing else.  Rocks are incalculably old - the only 'new' rock is volcanic.  Which this isn't.  But the fact that these rocks were shaped and moved over 5000 years ago?  By humans?  Who clearly had better things to do, when it really comes down to it.  Simple survival took so much of human effort - why use precious human and social resources to move giant rocks?  And then human cultures are so temporary that people in the area forgot why their forefathers and foremothers had bothered?  Wow.


And people have been carving graffiti into these rocks for millennia - everyone wants to be remembered in some way.   

So I froze my butt off in the wind and just looked at these rocks for an hour.  And looked at the highway behind them.  And looked at the sheep on the other part of the site.  And thought about what human cultures mean, how ephemeral they are, and how bizarre we are as a species. 


Today is the big day - move in day

I've been hanging out in Oxford since Friday afternoon, though I've spent a ton of time reading, sleeping at the wrong times, and discovering the joys of being lactose intolerant.  (Did you know that you can develop lactose intolerance out of nowhere, as an adult?  Neither did I.  Now we both know. According to the internet, this can be temporary.  I hope so.  I'm not willing to face a world without pizza or cappuccino.).

But I have wandered around a bit to see the hordes of teenage Harry Potter fan tourists, the older and more picturesque of the Oxford colleges, the center city shopping area, and the Starbucks in which I am currently working and writing while I wait to be able to move into the college where I will be living and working.

Yes I came 5000 miles for Starbucks.  Hey, it has seats. 

I will be living and working in a much less historical college - St Antony's College was founded in 1950, about 700 years after some of the earlier ones.  More than a hundred years after my own American undergraduate institution, oddly enough. There's a reception tonight and class starts tomorrow.   

I think I am going to be okay with this - I wrote out some notes and a mini outline from the reading I've done on my research paper topic, and the document has 700 words.  The paper needs to be 2000.  So I think I'm going to be okay there.  And I've done just about all of the reading for the first two days of class.   

Lessons learned to apply to my teaching: 

  1. Creating a syllabus that is too enormous is demoralizing and counterproductive.  While I know this in abstract, it's been a while since I've experienced this.  If this class were on a topic that I truly knew nothing about, and I was doing anything else besides getting ready for this class for the last two weeks, I would have been screwed.  I want to make sure that my classes in future don;t feel quite this crazed, at least not constantly. 
  2. Taking notes while reading in some fashion is really important.  My annotations, highlights,and written summaries (though I have given up on written summaries at this point because I have too much to read) forced me to engage in the reading.  And I can go back to them rather than rereading whole chunks of text.
  3. Well selected readings that connect to specific questions help enormously.  This class is very well designed, which I appreciate and aspire to. 
  4. My god school is hard. 

None of these are true revelations, but there ya go. 

My questions

This class is organized around 20 questions (which I find endlessly hilarious). I am responsible for 10 minute presentations on the following questions:

  • Are recent democratic transitions in Latin America better explained by domestic or international factors? (I asked a version of this question to my 12th graders last year at BSGE- my answer will be a bit more complex) 
  • How useful do you find O'Donnell's concept of 'delegative democracy' for understanding the political system of Argentina? ( I ended up reading the article referenced in May while doing background reading for this class) 
  • Have the media helped or hindered the process of democratization in Latin America? ( I have no idea. Didn't really think about this before innrhis fashion....) 
  • "The Colombian state is often described as weak, yet it could hardly sustain such an assault from its opponents if it did not have significant sources of strength." Discuss. (What? Everything I know about the history of Colombia I have learned from students doing historical investigations on La  violencia which I still don't really  understand. And isn't what's being asked about anyway)

I mentioned that I have to write a paper too. The paper topic has to be one of the 20 questions. Since I intend to teach Chile next year, I'm clearly doing the Chile question - On almost all economic and political indicators Chile looks better than any other country in Latin America. Why then is there cause for concern over the quality of democracy in Chile?


lots to think about.  

Oh my goodness what did I get myself into?!

So I now have the syllabus for this class. The syllabus is 11 PAGES LONG.  

This class is 10 days long. 

Did I mention there are 5 people in the class? There are 5 people in the class. Including me.  

There is nowhere to hide.  

There are three activities each day of the class, and the syllabus deals with one of them - a two hour meeting with the professor and all students each morning. For each class meeting, two questions have been set. This means there are 20 questions for the class. Each person in the class is responsible for a 10 minute presentation on 4 of the questions, on four different days. The syllabus lists reading for each question - 5-7 pieces (journal articles, book chapters, occasionally entire books). Reading all of the material for your four questions is a lot. However, if I at least don't do more of the reading, I will know nothing about the other topics. 

So I have been reading and note taking like a super anxious madwoman for the last week and a half. And I have light years to go.  

Did I mention that I also have to write a 2000 word paper due on the 7th day of the class? 

i knew this class was going to be serious work. Didn't realize it was going to be sheer terror. Because I detest looking stupid and unprepared. 



So I continue to be a bundle of anxiety about this class.  I have no further information on the reading that will be necessary for the class itself.  I've done quite a bit of background reading, however, and been super deliberate about note taking and summarizing.  Well, for the most part.  

I did try to follow the one page summary model, but I'm just too verbose.  My summaries of journal articles are two sided of a handwritten page - maybe 300 words?  I don't quite know enough to fully address other works this article is in dialogue with throughout time, but it has pointed me in the direction of Robert A. Dahl, and has given me a starting point for my 12th grade elective next year.  The notes helped me to remember the argument, and should be an excellent basis for doing something for this class as well.  I've taken this same approach for other articles from the Journal of Democracy that seem very relevant and will be useful.  I've been much less deliberate with the background reading books, which I hope will not end up screwing me over in the long run....

Post #3: Reading and note taking.

I'm thinking a lot about reading and notetaking.  This is something I think about professionally quite often, since I teach students ways to do both as they learn to engage in in depth research for the first time.  However, I haven't thought about this beyond this for myself in quite a while.  The last actual research paper I wrote was in 2002 - before the invention of smartphones and tablets, and in the earlier days of the ridiculously easy availability of historical sources, etc online.

Some of the strategies I teach I've never really used myself.  

I've never created an index card, old school style, for a research paper.  I started my teaching career teaching younger students a series of strategies for mindful reading, which included using post-it notes as a way to make notes and reflections in a moveable and portable way.

I am at the moment combining these two strategies for my reading.  I'm quite concerned that I will look like an idiot during class discussions without a grounding in ideas and a way to access the information easily.  I am also concerned about finding a reasonable method that makes my writing easier.  I don't want to do what I often did in school - sift through all of my research materials to find an idea or a quote or a connection.  I know that index cards can truly be physically organized, and I like the idea of using my post it notes that way.  But I will end up with a lot -I've put approximately 40 in half of one book.  And I will read many more.

And now I'm also thinking about close reading, which I've never really done in a truly granular way.  I didn't write a PhD thesis or a true master's thesis, and this style of truly close reading is not something I've really done.  So I'd like to challenge myself in that way as well.

I follow a number of historians and sociologists and other academic types on Twitter, and have learned a lot of 'listening in' on discussions about research, work and process.  Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist, posted a piece on reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me in order to write a review of it for The Atlantic.  Her description of her process is incredibly revealing for me.  For her, reading and writing are intertwined.  Highlighting is followed by written response, and then completion of the book is followed by writing a one page summary of the text. For McMillan Cottom, 

"One page forces you to eliminate extraneous notes and to focus on the central themes in a text. The page should also give a few external citations that you think the text is in conversation with."

That's more writing, for one book, than I am planning to do for my entire research paper.  But it seems like such an exciting and engaging kind of process.

So I need to think more about what I will do.  And what could be adapted for teaching to high school students in the future.

Post #2: Preliminary reading

So this course is a little odd. Turns out I won't have 2 weeks to write this 2000 word paper - it's due during the course  and you get it back at the end.

i think this may mean I have a week to write the paper??! Yikes. 

Plus there's an expectation of background knowledge to have before you begin reading for the course itself. So I was given a list of books to read, journals to get familiar with, and I will then get the reading list for the course itself in July.  

Odd set up. And more work than I thought. Yay. Got to get my notetaking and organizational game in gear so I don't look like a total idiot during this course.  


Post #1: Getting ready

So I'm going to take a class at Oxford! I heard about this possibility through the DOE's webpage for teachers. An organization called the English Speaking Union of the United States offers scholarships for teachers to study in the UK in the summer at various schools. I won a scholarship from New York City with an application to take a course at the International Politics summer school at St Antony's College at Oxford  on the democratization of Latin America after 1970. 

Yes, I'm actually going to take a class on this after spending the school year talking about it. It's what I do.  

Oh, and during this class I will write a 2000 word research paper. In two weeks. The last research paper I wrote in history - in 2001? Maybe 2002? It's going to be an adventure.  

I'm super excited at this point - I've gotten a list of background reading to start getting ready,  made my travel arrangements...