What I learned from jury duty

A few weeks ago I served on a jury for the first time (I was Juror #3). It was a murder case, and testimony took about a week and a half. I learned a great deal, but what really came through to me relates to my teaching.

We listened to arguments and testimony from 9 am to 4:30 pm, with 90 minutes for lunch and two 15 minute breaks. That’s in a chair, with a polite expression on our faces, for hours every day. We could take notes, but the notes had to stay in the courtroom and were destroyed after the trial. After eight full days of listening and not being allowed to talk about the case to anyone, including each other, we were put in a small room for deliberations.

W. S. Gilbert’s illustration for “Now, Jurymen, hear my advice” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, c 1890


My mother told me there are only two major responsibilities that citizens have in a democracy: voting, and serving on a jury. In order to be an educated voter, we must be able to read and critically analyze what we read, hear and see among the elements influencing our vote. To be a juror, I came to understand, we must be able to listen to lecturing for many hours, using our minds both during and after the lecture to process verbal information, all while considering veracity, tone, and message.

There was no group activity or “active learning” until deliberations,and when that time came much depended on our memory or notes, and on our processing of what we’d be given by the attorneys and witnesses. On top of that, we had the court’s instructions, which set firm parameters by which we were to process the information.

In other words, it is a lecture/test model.

Radcliffe, 1954

For some time, I have been questioning the wisdom of active learning pedagogy, both in the classroom and in an online environment. While adopting many of the methods of active learning over the years, and trying enthusiastically to increase student participation and engagement, I have always had an awareness of what was being lost through those methods. And as I’ve watched our culture get sucked into the internet, and participated fully in the discussion of what that does to education, I have become even more concerned.

The ability to listen to testimony, which goes back centuries, and make judgements, is at the heart of justice. The ability to read critically is the heart of becoming an informed citizen. We must foster these skills and demand them of our students. Yet I am guilty of the conversational lecture and discussion, where their participation with me helps create new knowledge. I am addicted to finding ways for them to fully engage the class. My lectures are down to about 20 minutes. I’ve catered to their attention span, their difficulties reading, and their lack of mental exercise, all while being careful not to dumb down my classes below the college level.

Instead, I should be emphasizing deep reading and lecture listening (and good note-taking), followed by conclusions, decisions, or judgements that they develop based on that input. It sounds medieval. It is medieval. It’s also my responsibility. Pedagogical shift coming up…

Grading over learning

I know I complain a lot about Canvas, but I do assume that their discussion boards, however limited, will act like discussion boards.

So I set them up for students to post their primary source each week. These are due Wednesday midnight, so that’s the “due date” I set. On Thursday I grade them in Speedgrader, using a rubric. That’s the end of the assignment.

I just discovered, because a student sent me a screenshot, that when they go back to their post, it shows a large green “Re-submit Assignment” button.


Apparently that appears because the forum is still available. The due date doesn’t matter – if the discussion can be seen (is available) the green button implies that you can re-submit your post before that “close” date.

But in my class, you can’t, and I can’t set a close date, because these same boards are used throughout the course to post additional, ungraded primary sources for writing. The discussion is actually a collection of primary sources – it’s just that only the first one is graded. I do NOT come back and regrade every weekly board throughout the whole semester.

But the green button implies that I do, that they can just re-submit. And when they do this, it makes it so they cannot see their original submission. The whole idea is so they can see everyone’s, the whole collection.

So the fact that Canvas lets me grade forum posts, which used to seem a boon, is a nasty trap. It considers such posts “assignments”. In classes which actually have a discussion instead of posting boards, the button implies that you can take back what you’ve said, and say something else, even after it’s been graded. It also implies that everything you say is a “submission”, an “assignment”, rather than a contribution to a conversation. I grade the student’s entire contribution to a discussion, not individual posts. I wanted to grade posts, but Canvas wouldn’t let me, so I designed discussion around the technology. And now the technology undermines that by emphasizing grades over conversation.

This is similar to the new red buttons shouting “Late” and “Missing” on student work, even when a student is given options to do things, or was permitted to do something late. Canvas is leaning toward not only grading everything, but forcing the primacy of grades over the activities for learning, which may also happen to be graded. That’s not helpful.

A bit of context, please

Image by Eden, Janine, and Jim via Flickr

Some of the current statues under attack, this time in New York City in addition to various locations in the south, is of a Victorian medical practitioner, J. Marion Sims. Already appalled by the unwillingness of  people to understand the mixed historical contribution of individuals like Robert E. Lee, I nevertheless find this one particularly provoking given my current studies.

The Washington Post article is here. Although it contains within itself a quotation from Sims’ autobiography making it clear that the surgeries in question were conducted “before anesthetics”, the protestors (and the title of the article) make the horrified announcement that he did it “without anesthetics”, as if he were practicing today.

Willing to consider he might be a butcher of enslaved young woman, I did what all historians to and went to the source. His autobiography is here for all to read. As near as I can tell on a quick overview reading, two of his crucial “experiments” on enslaved women with painful fistulas were not only consented to freely by the women involved (which the article says is doubtful), but cured them, because he persisted in working on the problem after others would have given up.

After only an hour of cursory research, it is clear to me that this doctor may have invented the speculum and a suturing technique that saved women from an extraordinarily painful condition. According to the article, he also performed the first successful gallbladder surgery. Although clearly a man of his time, his book shows compassion for all “negroes” under his care. Anesthesia was a rare, expensive, dangerous, and unproven technology at the time.

The women with blood on their clothes protesting the statues need to check out some context. I cannot find in Sims’ autobiography anything about him believing that black women can’t feel pain, as quoted by one of the protesters in the article. In fact, Sims describes the “constant pain and burning” that one patient, Anarcha, felt due to her condition. On another patient, Betsey, he doesn’t do a rectal examination because

I thought that this poor woman was suffering enough without my doing so disagreeable a thing

Saying people should “study history” doesn’t quite cover this sort of thing. What’s missing is any curiosity about alternate narratives, about discovering the history of things (like surgery) that we take for granted and that any of us might need. Admittedly, I only looked at his own report. But it at least provides an alternative explanation to the story that this man ruthlessly used enslaved women for experiments without conscience or a desire to help humanity. Context can provide a little balance, which these days would be a good thing.