How I Spent My Summer…

I made a makeshift recording studio in my bedroom, including a cylinder box of rolled oats as a microphone stand.

Pardon the dust around here… it’s been a very busy time for me as the COVID-19 pandemic put a whole lot of extra work on me in terms of class preparation. It robbed me of any desire to sit in front of a computer to post to this site.

I’m sorry. I hope you’ll take me back,

When we went to remote instruction, the administration at Pratt and at CUNY recommended that we turn our courses from live, in-person classes to asynchronous, remote classes—with a short, synchronous weekly session via Zoom or Google Meet.

The spring semester ended about two months ago, but since then I have been teaching two online classes for Queens College in their two summer sessions—Summer 1 in June, and Summer 2 in July.

This is not my first time teaching online, remote classes. Indeed, I have been teaching online sections of Media Technologies and Contemporary Media for a few years now, both in summer and winter sessions. But given what I learned over the last few months, during our emergency switch to remote learning, I thought it best to revise my courses given what I learned in the spring term.

My goals for the summer courses were basically to…

  1. revise the structure of my syllabi to make it easier to find information
  2. break up the recorded video lectures into shorter segments,
  3. in the case of Contemporary Media, assign an open educational resource textbook to save my students—some of whom are food insecure—some money.

For these courses, I have spent an average of six to eight hours working on each module. Since each course has twelve modules, I spent the equivalent of a full-time job working on these courses since early June.

Revising the syllabus was pretty easy. I moved away from the traditional calendar-based schedule to one structured along learning modules. Each module had the same three elements as my previous courses: a textbook reading, a narrated-slideshow lecture recording, and a quiz. But this time I listed each task under each module as “assignments.” You can see an example of this on my Media Technologies syllabus. I hope it was easier for students to figure out their assignments.

There are many celebrants of Open Educational Resources for textbooks, but I am not convinced that this model of textbooks is ready for wide deployment, particularly in the specific courses I teach.

The one textbook that seemed useful for either of this summer’s courses was Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. You can get a copy from the Open Textbook Library. I really liked that it was available in many different formats, including PDF and EPUB, and that you could read it on the web using nothing more than a browser. However, what really made this textbook difficult to use was that it was last updated in 2009.

Since the textbook was woefully out of date, I had to use the lectures to update the outdated information from the book. For example, there are no longer is a Big Four recording music conglomerates nor is there a Big Six movie conglomerates. In the case of music, EMI was absorbed by Universal Music Group and Warner Music with Sony Music as the third conglomerate standing. And in the case of the movie industry, Disney acquired Fox in 2019 for $71 billion, leaving only five major conglomerates.

And then there were five…

Because I was using a textbook I hadn’t used before, I had write new reading quizzes from scratch. This took about an hour per module, but outlining each lecture, preparing each slideshow, and then recording each module’s screencast took an additional six to seven hours a day.

Today, I posted the videos for the last module of the two summer sessions. As a “victory lap” of sorts, I compiled a few numbers from the two classes I taught this summer.

Media Technologies Contemporary Media Total
Modules 12 12 24
Slides 608 593 1201
Videos 46 51 97
TRT 6h 31m 46s 6h 35m 15s 13h 7m 1s
Average Slides per Module 50.67 49.42 50.04
Average Slides per Video 13.22 11.63 12.38
Average TRT per Module 32m 39s 32m 56s 32m 48s
Average TRT Per Video 8m 31s 7m 45s 8m 7s

The biggest reason I wanted to break up the lecture into shorter segments was to make the videos about six minutes each. Previously, each module’s lecture was about 20 minutes long. Based on the numbers, it looks like I failed. Each video for Media Technologies averaged about 8 ½ minutes, and each video for Contemporary Media averaged about 7 ¾ minutes.

However, I have to give myself credit for consistency. The total running time of all the recorded videos for each class were surprising close: 6 hours 31 minutes for Media Technologies versus 6 hours 35 minutes and Contemporary Media. And I also used a very similar number of slides: 608 in the case of Media Technologies and 593 in the case of Contemporary Media.

All My Microphones, Compared

This post contains affiliate links to Amazon. I could receive a referral commission if you buy something through those links.

In the Age of the Virus, I’ve been teaching remotely. This has given me two new tasks that require decent audio: video conferencing and recording classes at home. I would never call myself an audiophile, but for whatever reason, bad low-fidelity audio bothers me. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I want to do better.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bunch of different ways of recording sound on my computer, and I thought it would be fun to test each of them to see how they preformed.

I used the following six microphones for this test:

  1. The internal microphone of my MacBook Pro,
  2. AirPods connected wireless via Bluetooth,
  3. EarPods connecting deprecated mini-plug via the headphone jack in my MacBook Pro,
  4. The microphone that dangles from a pair of AKG K545 headphones,
  5. Blue Snowball condenser microphone, discontinued by the manufacturer, that I set on my desk,
  6. the very popular Blue Yeti USB condenser microphone with an attached pop filter.

I couldn’t try one of my oldest microphones—a Blue Snowball. I left that at my office at NYU, inside Bobst Library, and the entire building is inaccessible to non-essential employees like myself.

For each recording, I used Sound Studio for Mac and recording using an early 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro. (Yes, the one that many considered to be the last great MacBook Pro until Apple came out with last year’s 16-inch model.) I did some slight editing on each recording: I trimmed my reading of each sentence, inserted a half-second of silence between each sentence, and normalized the sound. I did the latter to control for loudness; most of us are biased to think that louder sound is a better sound.

Harvard Sentences

I read aloud the following ten Harvard Sentences into each microphone. I used “List 5” from this list of Harvard Sentences for those who want to reproduce this test at home. For the most part, I read the phrases as written, although I did flub a couple of them. The sentences are…

  1. A king ruled the state in the early days.
  2. The ship was torn apart on the sharp reef.
  3. Sickness kept him home the third week.
  4. The wide road shimmered in the hot sun.
  5. The lazy cow lay in the cool grass.
  6. Lift the square stone over the fence.
  7. The rope will bind the seven books at once.
  8. Hop over the fence and plunge in.
  9. The friendly gang left the drug store.
  10. Mesh wire keeps chicks inside.

Here are the results of testing each microphone.

MacBook Pro early-2015, Internal Microphone

The internal microphone of most MacBook Pro notebooks near the keyboard.

This is the most convenient way of recording sound on a Mac. It requires nothing more than the Mac itself. The result is pretty solid.

I have my MacBook Pro slightly elevated at tilted towards me since it is perched on a laptop stand. Remember that sound, especially the human voice, is very directional. Perhaps titling it towards me helped get good sound. If memory serves, the internal microphone on a MacBook Pro is located near the top of the keyboard.

One thing to consider is that I wasn’t using my speaker. I always find it annoying to hear feedback on conference calls that noticeably degrade the sound quality.

AirPods, Handsfree via Bluetooth

My trusty and dusty AirPods can record audio.

Apple’s AirPods is one of my favorite devices. Before All This Happened, I used my AirPods on a daily basis, listening to music and podcasts as I walked around town. But as we are all staying home as much as possible, I’ve been using them a lot less.

Using AirPods for phone calls—over the cellular network or VOIP—is unmatched in terms of its convenience. It doesn’t require your hands and don’t have a wire to get in the way. You don’t even have to have your device on your person—as long as it’s not too far for the Bluetooth radio. This is probably why you see late night TV hosts and some newscasters use AirPods to record themselves.

However, in terms of sound fidelity, they fared the worst.

It sounds like I’m talking through a machine—as it doesn’t sample enough of my sound—or if it used a lossy compression algorithm at a very low bitrate.

I was surprised that it was actually worse than recording through using the MacBook Pro’s internal microphone. I learned back in college that even the worst external microphone was still better than using the on-board microphone in my field recorder because the recorder makes some noise that will be on the recording.

To be fair, I think the poor sound has to do with my Mac. Listening to music on my AirPods doesn’t sound as good playing from my Mac as it does playing from an iOS device, such as an iPhone or a iPad.

Wired EarPods with a Mini-Plug

These EarPods are at least five and a half years old.

I actually have a couple of pairs of these EarPods lying around. They might be from my iPhone 6 (2014) and maybe even my iPhone 5 (2012). I used these instead of the newer ones that came with my iPhone 11 Pro because I can connect these to my MacBook Pro.

The sounds was also pretty solid—good depth and warmth—and it didn’t sound compressed like the AirPods. It also sounds marginally better than “going bareback” on my MacBook Pro.

AKG K545 Headphones, Handsfree Wired

Testing 1, 2, 3… checking levels on the cable microphone on my AKG K545.

In late-2014, I was engaging in some retail therapy and listening to a lot of sad music, and these headphones were the result of that.

I expected these would fare better than the EarPods simply because they’re more expensive than EarPods. But they capture more of the room echo than the EarPods.

Again, to be fair, these are primarily headphones for listening—not microphones for recording. As far as headphones sound, they’re pretty good, but are heavy. And because they have a closed-back design, they isolate ambient noise. A lot of people prefer these kinds of headphones, but I don’t. I get fatigued wearing them for any substantial period of time.

Blue Snowflake on My Desk

I bought this Blue Snowflake microphone over ten years ago to record my lectures, a practice that didn’t last long.

The Blue Snowflake is a portable USB microphone. Despite its small size, it’s a great little microphone that I picked up at the end of 2009. It is meant to sit on a desk or clipped to a computer monitor to provide better sound during voice conference calls and for field recording. It is an omnidirectional microphone so it captures a lot of other sounds. This is good if you are in the audience and want to record a lecture or a band playing live.

I really like how it sounds. It doesn’t seem to get too much of the room echo while still clearly recording my voice.

Again, recording voice from a person speaking nearby is exactly what the Snowflake was designed to do. It performed great.

Blue Yeti with Pop Filter

I couldn’t resist to buy a Blue Yeti in midnight blue because why not…?

I expected this to make the best recording, and it did. The Blue Yeti is a very popular USB microphone. It is marketed to podcasters who don’t want to mess around with a XLR cables and a USB preamp. It’s been a while since I bought this microphone, but I think I bought the Yeti because I like the design of Blue microphones. They just look cool.

I also added a basic pop filter to this microphone to cut down on the popping Ps and other noises when you make when speaking close to the microphone.

The sound here is terrific. There is no room echo, largely because I’m speaking into the microphone. The recording has high fidelity: my voice sounds like it should if I were in the room with you.

Conclusions

Of course, the Blue Yeti performed best of all the microphones I have on hand. It is meant to record podcasters and other spoken word, and it does this really well.

The other microphones were more interesting. Honestly, I was surprised how well the built-in microphone in my MacBook Pro worked. For this you don’t need anything, and it records quite well. I think that if I were using the built-in MacBook Pro microphone for videoconferencing or VOIP, I would I use a set of headphones to prevent the feedback.

In fact, I think it would be useful to use the configure AirPods for sound output but use the internal microphone for sounds recording. This way you can have the convenience of wireless earphones and a decent microphone.

But, of course, in the Age of the Virus, no one expect studio-quality sound.

The Three COVID-19–Era Phrases I Want to Trademark

It looks like my attempt to get the phrase “In the Age of the Virus” to catch on isn’t working. It looks like the Internet prefers “In the Time of Corona” because it sounds more like the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s book In the Time of Cholera. It’s okay. I got over the term “Internaut” not catching on… I’ll get over this.

But there are three other phrases I often hear people say and or write when we refer to pre–COVID-19 life, life during COVID-19, and what we hope will some day come—life after COVID-19.

  1. Before All This Happened. Apparently, the Russians have a proverb that goes something like this: “Want to hear God laugh? Tell him your plans.” Did you have plans for stuff in April, in May, for 2021? God is laughing really hard now.
  2. Since All This Happened. Our now lives now that everything is impacted by this pandemic: from small inconveniences to catastrophic life events.
  3. When This is All Over. A hopeful phrase that  someday things will go back to normal—or what they were like Before This All Happened. I think this is foolish because things will never be like they were. Either we’ll have sunshine and rainbows… or it will be hell on earth. We’ll either come to realize that global unity and democracy will solve our problems—or we’ll go tribal and start world wars against other countries as we embrace fascists and autocrats. Take a guess where I put my money.

I’m not a linguist or semiotician, but it looks like “THIS” is the metonym for life during COVID-19. It refers to a lot of different things:

  1. the social distancing and our missing personal contact
  2. mass unemployment
  3. the global economic collapse
  4. cancelling everything
  5. spending all your time at home
  6. sanitizing everything
  7. being scared to go outside
  8. feeling guilty about going outside
  9. the pandemic and the toll it’s taken on our health care system
  10. everyone’s lives being transformed— rapidly and in unexpected ways

Hopefully, you’re reading this in a future where my site still exists and when This ended. And there were sunshine and rainbows.

Rain Design’s iLevel Laptop Stand, Reviewed

IMG 3369

When All This Happened and I realized that I would be toiling from home for the foreseeable future, I received an email newsletter from The Wirecutter recommending gear that would be useful for working from home. Talk about great timing!

Within a few days of working in this new always toiling-from-home environment, I recognized that looking down at my laptop for hours on end would be an ergonomic disaster waiting to happen. I should probably get a laptop stand to raise the display.

The Wirecutter’s top pick was the Rain Design iLevel 2 laptop stand. There were other, cheaper options, but I figured spending an extra $20 would be worth it considering the hundreds of hours I would spend working on my laptop at home. In the Age of the Virus, I wouldn’t be working at coffee shops and brewery taprooms any time soon.

Let’s get it from Amazon!

As we know, The Wirecutter makes money from referring customers to Amazon and other online retailers. (By the way, I do the same thing with this website. So please shop liberally!) Their recommendation for the iLevel 2 refers you to buy it from Amazon. Of course, the Wirecutter’s commission is fair for all the testing they did. “Fine. Let’s get it from Amazon,” I thought.

Apparently, everyone else had the same idea: “order everything from Amazon!” As has been well-documented, Amazon deliveries are taking a long time. The iLevel wouldn’t arrive until late April.

And as of this post’s publication, it doesn’t even show up on Amazon. Eeek! Maybe you can find it, and if you do, I might get a commission if you buy through this link.

However, I was able to find the iLevel from Rain Design’s website. It would arrive in a week from their East Bay headquarters via free–UPS Ground shipping.

Portable Desktop

After receiving the package, I disinfected the contents because that’s the age we live in now. I installed the sanitized laptop stand, and started working. Almost immediately, I noticed that my MacBook Pro would bounce with each keystroke. It would spring up-and-down when I typed a number or anything in the home row. This wasn’t going to work.

I looked at the Feature photo on Rain Design’s website and noticed that the iLevel is pictured with a keyboard and a mouse.

Rain Design's ILevel laptop stand photo features

Fortunately, I usually use a mouse with my MacBook Pro when I’m at home, so I had one handy. I also had a Bluetooth keyboard that came with an iMac I bought in 2009. At some point, I upgraded the keyboard to one with a numeric keypad for the iMac—and I kept the wireless keyboard to use with my pre-Pro iPads.

My MacBook Pro was now effectively a portable desktop computer. It’s also cool that the iLevel’s aluminum body perfectly matches my MacBook Pro. [Chef’s Kiss!]

The New Normal

I’ve used this setup for two full weeks, and it’s been great. I don’t have any physical discomfort from working hours on end at the same desk, although I do take frequent bathroom breaks because I drink a lot of water—both flat and fizzy. That was the primary reason for getting the laptop stand in the first place.

The other cool benefit is that the stand’s height is adjustable. In the Age of the Virus and all the videoconferences—Zoom, Meet, Teams, you name it—it really helps for me to raise and lower the laptop’s front-facing camera to find a flattering angle for my mug.

One thing I am considering replacing is my keyboard. It feels a little stiff, as if I have to tap extra hard for each keystroke. Part of this might be because I just had the top case replaced on my 2015 MacBook Pro, and the built-in keyboard is new and feels pleasantly responsive.

But as far as the laptop stand, it’s been great. I’m just not sure if my iLevel is the same as the iLevel 2 that The Wirecutter tested.

Rain Design’s iLevel 2 Laptop Stand

A sturdy adjustable laptop stand that is a perfect match for a MacBook Pro in the age of toiling from home. Also, much cheaper than buying an iMac.

As if Devo Covered The Doors “Light My Fire”

Months ago, back when we could go out of our homes and be among other humans, I was spent the better part of a whole Friday toiling at Evil Twin’s taproom in Ridgewood.

You might wonder how I could be productive sitting almost an entire day at a brewery. Yes, Evil Twin is a brewery but their taproom opened early to offer a coffee service by Bushwick’s Sey Coffee. I got there early, had coffee, worked on a couple of syllabi.

By the time I finished working, I was ready for beer.

At some point that evening, a DJ showed up and started spinning. One of the songs they played was a cover of The Doors’s “Light My Fire.” I wasn’t familiar with this cover, but I thought it would be easy to find.

It turns out… it was very hard to find.

The next day I told a couple of friends about it. I described it “as if Devo covered ‘Light My Fire.'” But it’s not Devo!

In the Age of the Virus, with more time spent at home and feeling nostalgic for that Friday at Evil Twin, I started searching for the song on Second Hand Songs. I remember this song being having percussive rhythm and some synthesizers—hence why I thought it might have been performed by Devo—so I figured it was from the late 1970s or early 1980s. As I skimmed through that list, I saw that Moebius had released a version in 1979. There was a link to the song on YouTube.

Yes, that was it!

The funny thing is that a curator of “Light My Fire” covers also thought it sounded like Devo.

My Thoughts on CUNY’s “Recalibration Period for Educational Equity”

CUNY surprised a lot of people—myself included—when I received an SMS alert indicating that CUNY would be observing a “Recalibration Period.” The message, delivered by the same system is used for statewide emergencies and for Notify NYC, reads as follows:

S: CUNYAlert – CUNY has instituted a Recalibration Period for Educational Equity
CUNY has instituted a Recalibration Period for Educational Equity, beginning this Friday, March 27, through Wednesday April 1. Distance learning will resume on Thursday, April 2. The University’s previously scheduled Spring Recess will run from April 8-10. There are numerous exceptions, visit CUNY’s coronavirus page for details, and your college’s website for campus-specific information.

The Recalibration Period for Educational Equity is to allow CUNY colleges to identify and provide computing devices to students who do not have access to computers at home to continue with remote instruction. Many CUNY students live below the poverty line—some are even “food insecure”—and it is important that we ensure every student has access to the necessary technology for continuing their studies.

The “recalibration” period will run from Friday, March 27 through Wednesday, April 1; remote instruction will resume on Thursday, April 2. To make up for the lost instruction days, CUNY cut Spring Break from over a week—April 8–16—to three days—April 8 to 10.

In addition to emergency alert, I also received emails about the “recalibration period” from the following College officers:

When I learned about the recalibration period, I was peeved having to redo the schedule for my courses…again! I was also concerned that my students would confuse my students who are already disillusioned with continuing their students in this stressful time.

A few hours later, I received a message from my department chair regarding the recalibration period. She explained that she had consulted with the Dean of Faculty and decided that we faculty should “ignore” the directives about the recalibration period. This message specifically referenced the chancellor’s and provost’s messages.

The latter message from the Provost is clear about observing this recalibration period: “This recalibration period is not optional. No instruction is to take place during this period: please don’t schedule tests or due-dates for assignments.”

This is conflicting information. What would you do?

After giving it some thought and sleeping on it, I have decided today to observe the recalibration period. Here’s why.

  1. Rank. While I was never in the military, or anything of the sort, I am aware of the pecking order of university and college officials: Chancellor > College President > Provost > Dean > Department Chair. With all due respect, rank dictates that I observe the directives of the higher officials than those of the dean or my department chair.
  2. Equity. A week ago, at the beginning of the remote instructional period, I circulated surveys to my students, asking whether they received my messages about my plans for remote instruction. The survey had another purpose: to test whether students could access course materials remotely. If a student could access the survey, they could access the course materials on Google Classroom. In my Media Criticism class of twenty students, seven have not completed the survey. And in my History of Cinema class of fifty-nine (59) credit-earning (non-auditing) students, eighteen (18) have not completed the survey. In all, almost a third of my students (32%) have not completed the simple task of completing a one-question, online survey in the course of a week. This doesn’t bode well for them to complete other more complex, online assignments. I really hope CUNY and Queens College doesn’t squander this period to identify students who don’t have access to the requisite technology—and to provide them with the necessary tools.
  3. Spring Break. I suspect that a lot of resistance to the recalibration period comes from the shortened spring break. Believe me, I have strong opinions about spring break, including my objection to CUNY’s spring break acting like a moveable feast. But, look, in the Age of the Virus, spring break is over. No one in the New York area should be traveling or getting together during the Easter–Passover breaks… no matter how badly some dimwits would be “raring to go” by then.
  4. “Asynchronicity”. As I described in my earlier post about remote instruction, I mentioned that most of my course activities would be asynchronous. I plan to keep that mode because it allows students more flexibility to participate in the course and to complete assignments.

Even with these reasons, I am conflicted about this recalibration period. I don’t like the idea of interrupting the semester—a second time after last week’s instructional recess—because it is disruptive to teaching and learning. I’m also concerned that the university and the college have not communicated their plans for identifying students-in-need and providing them with the necessary tools for remote learning. The administration could very well squander this recalibration period without addressing the needs of our neediest students.

At the risk of minor insubordination, I’ve updated the syllabi for my Media Criticism and my History of Cinema 2 courses to reflect the revised schedule in the age of recalibration.

Let’s Guess Who This Guy Voted For…

As I wrote earlier on this site, I’m lucky that I can work from home and still earn a paycheck. Of course, others are not so lucky and will either have to risk their health to work—or forgo a paycheck. This pandemic is turning out to be an economic catastrophe, in addition to being a health crisis.

The nonprofit local news site, The City, published a story about workers who cannot work from home. Most of the workers profiled seemed concerned but determined to carry on, but one of them, Fernando Rosario, a 68-year old plumber from The Bronx, is absolutely ignorant.

Photo by Virginia Breen/THE CITY

Writing for The City, Virgina Breen reports:

He watches the news, but doesn’t pay too close attention to swirling media accounts of the virus. “One thing nobody has been able to tell me: Where did this thing come from?” he said. “Like how did it get made?” He has his own method of dealing with the virus threat: “You drink alcohol — vodka — and it gives you protection. It kills everything.”

When Rosario rhetorically asks “how did [the virus] get made,” he’s clearly referencing the crackpot theory, advanced by the president and his ilk, that the virus was “made in China.”

And, no, vodka will give you protection from anything other than good judgement. But that’s clearly obvious.

Remote Online Teaching in The Age of the Virus

The Google wordmark is painted on the pedestrian path of the Pulaski Bridge in New York City but the "O"s have been replaced with surveillance video cameras.
You’re comfortable using Google products, right?

With the spread of COVID-19 into a global pandemic (thanks Trump!), all of my jobs are transitioning to remote instruction. CUNY Queens College remote classes go live on Thursday, March 19, and my classes at Pratt Institute are due to restart online on March 30. At NYU, where I am an hourly, contractor, we’ve been told to work from home until further notice.

As a knowledge worker, I am lucky that I can still work and earn money in this disrupted environment. My 2015 MacBook Pro works as good as it did five years ago, I have fiber-optic Internet at home, and, should I need to travel, my unlimited mobile data plan includes tethering. I also have a good USB mic for recording lectures.

For some techno-utopians, this might seem like the realization of a long-awaited reality: the mass-adoption of telecommuting and of online education. But as I think we’re all learning, transitioning to remote work and to distance learning is incredibly difficult and will certainly be less effective than being at work and at school.

I can’t offer much advice on remote working. I’m literally going through on-the-job training in that department. However, I can offer some advice on online teaching. I’ve taught many iterations of two online courses for years, namely Contemporary Media and Media Technologies during the summer and winter sessions, and here’s what I’m doing for my current classes in the age of the virus.

Just Google It

For years, I’ve been cool to using Google products. But I use Google Classroom and G Suite for assignments for a couple of reasons. First, Google Classroom doesn’t have too many features, and thus it is still pretty easy to use. For example, it’s a lot simpler than the bloatware that is Blackboard. Second, Google’s apps are what my students will encounter in the “real” world. Or, at least, these apps work like the ones other companies uses, such as Office 365. No one is going to use Blackboard or Moodle once they leave school.

Change How You Teach

Was your in-person class a three-hour lecture? Don’t run your online class with you talking to a webcam for three hours! That’s a sure way to have students do something else while you lecture, thus defeating the purpose of having the class in the first place.

You’ll have to deconstruct your class into parts. Some will have to become asynchronous, and some can remain synchronous. Let’s go through the two.

Asynchronous Activities

Asynchronous activities are those that are done on the student’s own timeline, not at a specific date and time. However, in order to keep students on task, you should require students to complete activities by a certain deadline.

Readings

You already assign readings from a textbook, a journal article, or something posted on the Internet. Think of other material that may complement those readings.

For example, as I teach film classes, I will assign one or two more critical essays each week that are available through EBSCO, JSTOR, or whatever databases your university subscribes. There are also some that you can access on a newspaper’s or magazine’s website, and there are other good readings on the open web. It is up to you, of course, to review and validate their value.

Lectures

For years, online teachers have evangelized the idea of the flipped classroom. In this model, you record your lecture ahead of time and have the students watch it on their own. It’s called “flipped” because you do some other activity—group work, discussion sessions, a lab, etc.—during the class time, instead of having the professor lecture at the class. In the age of virus, there won’t be an in-class session for the “other activity.”

My approach to lectures is to record a slideshow with voiceover narration, export it as a video, and post it to YouTube for students to watch. I prefer to post these as unlisted videos on YouTube because students are familiar with how YouTube works.

The most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is to compress the lecture into something much shorter than you normally do in-person. My two-hour lectures, for example, become twenty-minute presentations. Because you’re not interacting with students and checking if they understand you, you can proceed a lot faster. Students can pause and restart the lecture, as well review and rewind as they see fit.

There’s some art to crafting effective slides for this medium. That only comes with practice.

Film Screenings

Three of my four classes this semester are film classes which have screenings. I still want students to watch the films we had planned for the semester, but having them watch them on their own is tricky.

In the old days, we would have students watch films by requesting the titles from the reserve desk at the library. However, since we’re social distancing as much as possible, it would make sense for students to stream the titles online. And that is where things get tricky because each option comes with its own complications.

  1. Pick a streaming service that students can subscribe to, such as The Criterion Channel, and assign films from their collection. Subscriptions for The Criterion Channel, for example, are available on a monthly basis for $10.99 and yearly basis for $99.99.
  2. Point students to titles available for rent or purchase through Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play.
  3. If your institution or local library has a generous license to Kanopy, you can use that option to assign films from this collection.

Some of these options might be unaffordable for many students. After all, I have about six to seven weeks of the semester remaining. That’s a lot of films for students to rent or buy. And in the case of certain institutions, Kanopy might be too expensive. That’s why the New York Public Library did not renew its Kanopy subscription.

Essays

For essays, I’ve posted a Google Classroom assignment with an attached Google Doc that students must use to write their essays. You can configure it so there’s a copy for each student. I wouldn’t call grading essays “easy,” but you can comment on essays and return the work within the Google Docs—Google Classroom environment.

It works only if you require students to use Google Docs. Sometimes, they don’t observe that rule and upload a Microsoft Word document, a PDF, or even an Open Office document. Unfortunately, none of these work for commenting in Google Classroom, and you have to make students resubmit the assignment correctly.

Quizzes

Google Forms allows you to make quizzes. If you do objective questions and provide an answer key, the “robot” will grade the questions for you. Otherwise, you can grade subjective questions manually.

I prefer not to use Google Quiz for subjective questions. Students cannot save their responses to complete their work later. They have to finish it in one sitting.

Take-Home Exams

Because proctoring exams is impossible without creepy surveillance technologies, I assign students take-home exams.

As I mentioned earlier, students can’t save their progress in Google Forms. Instead, I prefer to write questions in Google Docs. Students write their responses below the question. I grade the responses by using commenting feature in Google Docs. Then I add up their points, record the score, and return the assignment.

Google Classroom allows you to use rubrics, but I hate rubrics so I don’t use this feature.

Synchronous Activities

Synchronous activities are those that are done at a specific date and time, either with the entire class, with groups of students, or one-on-one sessions with an individual student.

Discussion Sessions

For the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, I am scheduling an hourlong discussion section for each of my classes. We are hosting these on Google Meet, which normally allows for 100 simultaneous participants. But in the age of the virus, they increased that limit to 250 participants.

Office Hours

Since 2016, I have been using the self-scheduling appointment slots feature in Google Calendar. I use these so students can sign up for in-person office hours, although they can also schedule remote appointments through Google Meet.

In the age of the virus, all meetings will be remote and held through Google Meet. Students who sign up for an appointment will receive a confirmation email of their appointment. The email—and the entry in the student’s Google Calendar—contains a link to the Video Call and a phone number (with a PIN) to join the call by telephone.

Generally, I only use the audio-only feature of Google Meet, but in case you want to present something to a student, it makes sense to use the desktop web browser or the mobile apps to do this.

Need More Help?

If you’re interesting in learning more about transitioning your course to online, remote instruction, get in touch with me on the Contact page. We can discuss a plan that could work for you.

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Starve the Beast

Greetings from the Age of the Virus!

First, don’t believe the crazy crackpot theories that the novel coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese lab. It’s nonsense. But by the way Trump mentions “from China” when talking about the virus, it’s clear he’s one of those crackpots. Fuck that guy!

President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on coronavirus in the Brady press briefing room at the White House, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Washington. Listening from left are Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Second, of course, health epidemics and natural disasters—unlike wars and financial crises, for example—are not necessarily caused by humans, but it is up to humans to respond to them. Trump and other autocratic world leaders have failed to appropriately respond to this virus.

I’m over forty years old, and I can only remember two times that I’ve felt scared over diseases. The two times I have been scared over disease was, in the 1980s, during the AIDS epidemic and, now, during the spread of the novel cornonavirus and COVID-19.

The AIDS epidemic was the defining public health crisis of the 1980s. As a child of the 1980s, I was terrified of contracting HIV because it almost certainly meant it would become AIDS. And, in the 1980s, AIDS was basically a death sentence. There was no cure and whatever treatments came along weren’t all that effective. It felt like there was nothing we could do to stop it or to treat it.

One reason why HIV exploded into the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was because then-president Ronald Reagan refused to even publicly utter the word for four years after the disease had been discovered. Republican thinking in the late 1970s and 1980s grew out of a neoliberal approach to dismantling the government, in favor of the Free Market. Think of the many ways that Reagan talked about the government, famously saying that “government is the problem” (not the solution) and that most “terrifying” words an American can hear is “I’m from the government, and I am here to help.

Reagan also embodied the then-novel Republican approach to government: starve the beast.

This is how we “Stave the Beast”

Republicans began dismantling the government by defunding it. Here’s how they did it.

  1. Cut income taxes, especially for the wealthy and corporations.
  2. Use budget deficits as the rationale to cut government spending.
  3. With less money to do their jobs, government agencies would struggle to complete their missions and thus become ineffective.
  4. Repeat the cycle with more tax cuts.

This brings me to 2020. It is becoming clear that Trump’s actions to slash the government spending, including firing the CDC’s pandemic response team in 2018 to cut costs, and to start an ineffective trade war with China has made it impossible for the US to curb the spread of the coronavirus beyond Wuhan, China. John Ferguson, a molecular biologist and an expert in virology, explained that the current crisis was exacerabated by Trump and his cabinet of incompetent apparatchiks (Trump’s unique twist on “Starving the Beast”). Ferguson writes…

If a Democrat were in office – say Hillary, for example, you could be 100% assured that she would be surrounded by competent people. I suspect the virus would have been slowed substantially as compared with our current situation. In fact, if our relationship with China hadn’t been ruined by Trump, it is entirely likely that we would have had CDC personnel on the ground in China helping to contain the virus in China. We certainly would still have a pandemic response team—you know, the one that Trump fired to save a few million.

A generation after the AIDS crisis, the situation with HIV/AIDS is considerably different. Treatments are available, although the for-profit pharmaceutical industry is still gouging the price of life-saving drugs. If you can survive in the Free Market, living with HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence it was in the 1980s. It is essentially a chronic condition, not unlike diabetes. But it took long-delayed government action, by George W. Bush, no less, to finally accomplish that in the 2000s.

In recent years, we’ve had a series of different novel viruses spread. We had SARS, MERS, H1N1, Zika and Ebola. All were severe, and all were contained. As Ferguson further notes:

Do you know why you don’t hear about Zika virus any more? Because it was swiftly handled by a team of competent professionals. There was no panic. It was addressed and then it was largely over. That’s not what’s happening here.

Instead what is happening here is that we have a global pandemic that will likely cause many deaths and ruin the economy for a long time. And let us not speak of the panic. Nothing like this happened with the other recent viral epidemics. But because our federal government was screwed, starved and strangled by decades of Republican rule, culminating in Trump and his band of unfit leaders, all of us are now the ones who are totally screwed.

The Internet “Broke” into the Movies Twenty-Five Years Ago

The proprietors of Screen Slate have curated nifty film series at Anthology Film Archives. Screen Slate is, among other things, a website and daily newsletter of New York City independent, repertory, experimental, and artist-focused film and video screenings and exhibitions.”

The series, 1995: The Year the Internet Broke, brings together mostly-American films about the Internet that were released in 1995. The idea was to look back at Hollywood’s view of the Internet just as it was becoming a mainstream communications platform and “cyberspace” became a trendy buzzword. The series starts today, March 5, and runs through Thursday, March 12.

Some films in the series include Hackers (Iain Softley), Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii), Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow), and The Net (Irwin Winkler). I’m planning on watching Virtuosity (Brett Leonard) on Friday night.

1995: The Year I Became an Internaut

I first went on the real Internet in 1995, and, holy hell, that was 25 years ago!

Back in 1995, my friend Paul was well-versed with computers and introduced me to some early Internet applications beyond email that I could use through my university’s UNIX account. He showed me Usenet newsgroups, anonymous FTP for downloading shareware and freeware programs, and uuencode/uudecode to convert 8-bit binaries to 7-bit ASCII files suitable for transmission through ZMODEM. He also introduced me to the World Wide Web through the Lynx text-based web browser, skipping the menu-based Gopher altogether.

I should note that I accessed these applications through a shell on a university computer; I dialed in to the modem pool to get a terminal. I searched for a graphic to illustrate what this looked like, but I couldn’t find anything. Twenty-five years is a long time ago.

By summer 1995, I had learned how to configure SLIP and later PPP connections so that I could put my computer—a Macintosh Quadra 640—on the Internet. It could run Mac applications for FTP (Fetch), mail (Eudora), and a graphical web browser (Netscape). My life quickly evolved to integrate my computer and these Internet applications. I would say that 1995 marked the end of the Analog Stage of my life.

A lot has changed over the last 25 years. We now access the Internet on pocket and wearable devices, not just on computers. We now use many more Internet applications, including ones that control our light bulbs. And we now have weaponized the Internet for all kinds of nefarious actions, like spreading political propaganda and all kinds of misinformation. We’ve come a long way from hoping it would be a tool for peace, community, and education. Oh well.

And yet, over the last twenty-five years, my only regret is that I couldn’t get the term “Internaut” to catch on. It sounds so much cooler than “users.”