Categorized: Teaching

Happy New Year

Apple Watch had a festive animation for the new year.

Apple Watch had a festive animation for the new year.

Happy new year, everyone!

I spent the last week of 2017 and the first couple of weeks of 2018 in Southern California, extending going “home for the holidays” into a twenty-six day vacation. There’s a lot of reasons why I stayed out there as long as I did, but most of them are related to weather and my schedule.

First, New York can be a pretty sad place in January. It’s cold, and there aren’t a lot of social activities happening during this time of year. Consequently, people are pretty anti-social this time of year. People stay at home to cook at home, doing a dry-January thing, or are just bundling up at home because, like I said, it gets really cold this time of year. I’m not missing much being away from New York this time of year.

Second, the extended holiday vacation allows me to visit new places throughout the ever-changing Southland. Like most other places, Los Angeles shuts down during the holidays. I would often fly back to New York in early January and miss out on a lot activities in Los Angeles because a lot of interesting things happen again in mid-January. Staying out there later allows me to do these things in a strange land. And, of course, it’s noticeably warmer in Southern California than it is “back east.”

Third, I don’t plan a summer getaway like most everyone. As popular as it is to complain about the heat and humidity of New York summers, I actually really like New York during the summertime. Regular readers know that a lot of my favorite activities —specifically cycling and softball—happen during the summer, and the fair-weather New Yorkers depart for the shore until Labor Day weekend. That makes the city a kind of playground for those of us who remain, and when the douche-set returns in September, I don’t mind getting away then. As a friend once quipped, “September is the new August.”

Lastly, my schedule this time of year gives me some degree of freedom. I taught an online winter class at Queens College this semester, which I was able to run from my parents’ home and a couple of area coffee shops. I did have to come back for my first in-person class at Pratt, which started on Wednesday, January 17. Consequently, I didn’t fly back until the day before, on Tuesday.

I had reserved four tickets to the Broad Museum, but only my mom could make it so we gave these two Dutch tourists our spare tickets. They looked hot and tired, and I wanted to assure the Dutch that Americans are nice, despite our president.

There were many highlights on this trip. I did a lot of cycling, and I drank some beers, both of which I will cover in a separate post. I saw some family members. I visited the new Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles, whose location across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art, strikes me as a middle-finger from Broad to the museum he cofounded in the 1980s. I shopped a fountain pen store in Monrovia, California, run by a gentle yet passionate expert in pens and inks. I visited the Wende Museum of Cold War objets in Culver City. I dragged my mom and dad out to the same movie theater, where a generation ago, I would have been embarrassed at being spotted with either my mom or dad. As I’ve said before, young people are stupid. My dad and I teamed up to take and print my own passport photos; it’s harder than you think.

But now, I’m back in New York. Aside from jumping back into work, I finally got around to doing that MoviePass thing and started going to more movies. That’s been great because, as I said earlier, everyone is anti-social, and something I can do on my own.

Twenty-Percent Rule

A few moments ago at a Starbucks in Sylmar, California, after grading a set of take-home exams and posting grades to CUNYFirst, I finished another teaching semester at Queens College. I now get about a week off before starting anew with an online, winter session course that I will be conducting from my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. This shortens my winter break a bit, but the online course allows me to extend my stay here in California until mid-January. New York is always so cold, sad, and boring in early January, and I am not the least bit bereft about missing out on whatever winter dreariness there is back east.

While I should be excited about finishing another semester and again submitting grades on time, allowing me a peaceful Christmas break, that enthusiasm is tempered because just over 20% of students in my Media Criticism course didn’t receive a passing grade. Nine out of forty-five students outright failed, and one student just stopped attending but still submitted a take-home final exam. In all but two cases, the students just stopped attending class.

Sadly, this is a common occurence at Queens College. I was shocked to see that, in the first class I taught there years ago, about a third of the class failed. Up to that point, I had only limited teaching experiences: as a TA at UCSB and NYU, and teaching one introductory film course at Marymount Manhattan College. In those situations, there was always one or two students who didn’t complete the course, usually because of an extraordinary circumstance, but having ten students fail a single course was a terrible surprise. In my second semester at Queens College, I alerted my students to this fact, imploring them to not repeat this same, terrible feat. For whatever reason, in that second semester, the failure rate was much lower, but since then it has crept back up.

I don’t have a single explanation for why so many Queens College students fail these courses compared to similar courses at other colleges. However, a few factors, however, come to mind:

  • Some students have challenging socioeconomic circumstances.
  • Some students have demanding family obligations, either raising their own children or tending for other needy relatives.
  • Some students work full-time and are taking courses in their scant spare time.
  • Some students’ commutes make it hard to attend class.1
  • Some students are returning to school after an absence and are having a difficult time readjusting to school and/or learning how to “do” college.
  • Some students come from NYC or other urban public schools, where they largely excelled because they stayed out of trouble, not necessarily because they were academically proficient.
  • Some students are stuck in “K-12 mode,” treat the classroom as a battleground between student and teacher, and are consumed by what they “get away with” in class, with assignments, and on exams.

These are some pretty significant obstacles to overcome, and it’s not unreasonable to see how students facing these would have trouble in a college class, especially where I really push the students beyond procedural learning into more conceptual terrain. In other words, my courses are hard because I expect a lot of students, and I haven’t yet come to terms with dumbing down courses for more favorable reviews or a higher passing rate.

For the new year, I am implementing a few new policies at Queens College to help make clear that attending class and participating in the day-to-day assignments, not just the written ones that count towards their final grade, is essential in succeeding in college and beyond.

One step is to implement two new attendance policies:
1. Negative reinforcement: Students may not miss more than four weeks of class for any reason.
2. Positive reinforcement: Students attending more than 12 weeks of class will receive a half-grade bonus to their final grade.
These two seem a lot more consequential than factoring their attendance as a percentage of their final grade.

I’m also instituting a second policy in my Media Criticism course: require students to present on assigned readings. This worked really well in the New Technologies class that I taught years ago but never got to do again. The class relied a lot on readings and developing conceptual frameworks for understanding media. It also spared them from having me lecture, pontificate, and yammer for a three-hour (!) class period.

I hope these policies keep students engaged and invested, not just for my Media Criticism courses, but for all their other courses at the college. We owe it to our students to push them into realizing their greatness, especially in the face of the formidable circumstances many of them face. Allowing them to pass, by doing subpar work or missing many class sessions, is a disservice to what they should expect from us and why they enrolled in the first place.


  1. My eight-mile commute from Brooklyn to Queens College is a lethargic agony. I can bike there in less than an hour, but it’s through some pretty bike-unfriendly terrain. Alternatively, I can take public transportation, which will take about an hour-and-forty minutes to travel those eight miles, via a mix of subway lines and busses. 

When Google Calendar’s Appointment Slots Displays the Wrong Timezone

I’ve been a reluctant user of G Suite for Education—or Google Apps for Education, as it used to be known—for a few years. There have been a few headaches teaching classes with Google over the years, but because I so despise full-service learning management systems, such as Moodle and Blackboard, I’ve integrated G Suite and Google Classroom with my own vanilla HTML website to manage my courses.

About a year ago, I learned that Google Calendar supports self-scheduling appointment slots. It basically works like this:

  1. I create blocks of time in my Google Calendar where I’m available to meet with my students, either in person or through Google Hangouts. For regularly scheduled office hours, I make those slots a repeating event.
  2. I share the appointment slots event page link with my students, both on the course syllabus and on my own website.
  3. Students book an appointment through the link, after signing in with a valid Google account.
  4. I get notified of the appointment date and time, and I see who booked the appointment. Because I configured the appointment slots to alert me in advance of the appointment, I get an alarm at five and ten minutes before the appointment starts.

Yesterday, I learned about a bug in the system. Some students see the wrong appointment time. In one instance, Google Calendar showed a student the available appointment slots in UTC, not New York time. She booked an appointment for 3:00 PM on the appointment slots event page, but inadvertently scheduled it for UTC time. When she showed up for our appointment at 3:00 PM New York time, she had missed it. My calendar app saw that the appointment was made for 3:00 PM UTC and correctly displayed and notified me that it was at 10:00 AM Eastern Time.

Reading through the Google Calendar support forums, it seems to happen to a lot of other users. The conventional wisdom about this problem is that I have my Google Calendar set to GMT-5 (America/New York) while my student may have her Google Calendar set to UTC. However, many people insist that the college, university, or organization sets everyone’s calendar to their local time ( GMT-5 in my case). However, my students will often use their personal Gmail accounts instead of their university issued G Suite for Education account. There’s no guarantee that their calendar is set to their own local time. It might be set to UTC. My intuition says this is what likely causes the timezone display bug and why it’s not consistent.

Good news, though! I did find a workaround that worked for me. I had to override the timezone Google Calendar displays by appending my own timezone to the appointment slot URL. Here’s how I did that:

  1. I created appointment slots in Google Calendar as I normally would.
  2. I copied the appointment page URL that Google Calendar provides to share with my constituents. It should look something like this:
    https://calendar.google.com/calendar/selfsched?sstoken=2AHtwhQ0cknZcpXB1vwH (except perhaps a bit longer).
  3. I pasted that URL to where I could share it with my students.
  4. I added the following text: &ctz= and my timezone. In my case, it’s America/New_York. You can find out your own timezone, organized by country, by browsing this list. Be sure you include the underscore if your location includes a compound name.

This will force the appointment slots event page to display in the timezone you indicated. If you and your students are in the same time zone, then both of you should be scheduling appointment as you would without anyone seeing a timezone in UTC time.

I do however foresee one potential limitation for my workaround: online classes where teachers and students might be scattered across different time zones. In those cases, I might want to indicate that the appointment will be in the timezone of our home institution, regardless of whether the student or I is actually in that particular timezone.

UnionDocs is Looking for Winter-Spring Interns, Apply by November 17

UnionDocs, the Williamsburg, Brooklyn–based center for documentary video production, is looking for interns who work in “some aspect” of film and video: curation, production, or film theory. Interns help with realizing UnionDoc’s mission to foster nonfiction media, programming, events, production, and storytelling.

Interns would have responsibilities that including:

  • event documentation
  • event planning
  • social media marketing
  • programming support

Interested students can read more about it on the UnionDocs website and complete an application. The Winter/Spring internships run from mid-January through mid-May. The deadline to apply is Friday, November 17.

Apply by November 17

The University of California Press, or Another Case of Why Academic Publishing is Doomed in the Digital Age

I’m currently reviewing Hollywood, 1938, written by Catherine Jurca and published by University of California Press, for adoption in the American Film Industry course that I sometimes get to teach.

Since I am low on space and constantly on the move, I requested an electronic book. UC Press used the Vitalsource platform for this particular electronic book. I see the logic in using this platform for review copies since it allows them to control the distribution of the book. For example, should an instructor not adopt the book, the publisher can revoke access—or more likely, set an expiration date—so that the instructor doesn’t get a free book. Notably, UC Press sent me a DRM-free review copy of Precarious Creativity, but that book was licensed by a Creative Commons license and did not have “all rights reserved.”

I’ve been an outspoken critic of how academc publishers misuse electronic books. More often than not they commit one of two crimes:

  1. They saddle to book with so many digital rights management restrictions that the book is unusable. One common scenario is when the ebook application requires an internet connection to access your library, but because you are—for example—flying in airplane or trapped in a subway train, you can’t read a book that you paid for.
  2. They merely reproduce the pages of the print edition and put those on your device. That usually works except on a mobile device, such as a smartphone. I could be wrong, but I think there’s a few college students that own smartphones. I wonder if they wouldn’t mind reading their textbooks on a device they own.

In this case, the University of California Press committed both.

First, they using Vitalsource, a platform that makes it difficult as possible to open a book because it imagines every possible scenario where “unauthorized access” might occur. They should obviously take the opposite approach: imagine every possible scenario where someone might want to use your product. Even a seasoned veteran encountered an issue where I had to deauthorize my old iPad Air so I could read this book on my new iPad Pro. It wasn’t a difficult task, but it was certainly inconvenient.

Second, the book is unreadable. To their credit, whoever adapted this book for electronic distribution seemed to consider that the most natural way to advance through text is through vertical scrolling, as one does when reading a webpage or when looking through a social media feed. Instead of flipping virtual pages, you can advance through the entire text of a chapter by scrolling vertically. However, the text of this book is so small it is unreadable.

An entire nine-line paragraph is a mere two-and-a-half centimeters tall. Thankfully, you can enlarge the text. There’s a hidden menu that allows you to resize the text.

Can you find how to enlarge text?

Increasing the size helped a little bit, but it didn’t add any room to the tightly spaced text, as one can do with the EPUB format. Yes, I wear glasses, but I feel I still have pretty good eyesight. However this ebook strained my vision to where I couldn’t read beyond the first paragraph.

There was one function however that did make “reading” the book much easier. Vitalsource will allow you to speak the text. Some reading apps, such as Instapaper, have the same feature. It works for short works, such as news articles or blog posts. However, having a computer voice read to you for extended period of time ruins my experience of imagining the author detailing the historical moment and constructing an argument about Hollywood in 1938. And when you’re being read to aloud by a computer, it also elicits some confused and puzzled looks on the faces of various passersby.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. Shopping through that link will kick back a referral fee to me, which I feel I deserve after having to endure reviewing this terrible ebook format.

What’s Your Age?, How Old Are You?, When Were You Born?

If you ever participated in a research survey or a focus group, you’ve likely had to answer a question about your age. But have you had to answer three?

This is a screenshot of a survey from a major focus-group market-research company based here in New York. It asks for your age in three different ways:

  1. Enter your age in a text field.
  2. Select your age range.
  3. Input your date of birth.

In other words: what’s your age?, how old are you?, and when were you born?

It could be that they do this to ask so you don’t lie about your age. But I think they do this so they can filter the results in their spreadsheet and quickly find the subjects they want. For example: find people who were born before 1990, find people who are less between 28 and 34, or find people who reported to be between the age range of “28-34 years old,” etc.

Someone should show them that even in Google Forms, you can add calculation columns to help you find respondents within certain age ranges, respondents of specific ages, respondents who were born during certain years, or whatever combinations of these data. Honest. I’m not making this up. Isn’t Technology Great?!?

I won’t show them how to do it, but someone should…

But, hey, at least, this survey wasn’t as ugly as ones I’ve seen in the past.

Late to the OCR Party

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t use OCR for converting documents into plain text as much as I probably should. It is a very handy utility, and it is one that computers have been doing for a long time. Indeed, I remember using OCR in college, at the computer lab where I worked, scanning a single page of print and watching the software read it and turn it into plain text with astonishing accuracy. It seemed like magic.

And what did I do with that magical text? I took that text, put it in a Word document, and printed it out.

Today, there’s many more useful things to do with OCR, particularly for scholars and academics. One example is to share the text of historical primary documents instead of an image files of the documents.1 For years, I have been sharing with my students readings as PDF files, but in the mobile-first era of the web, it makes much more sense to share a webpage that someone can easily read on a mobile device, instead of a PDF that they have to pinch-and-zoom—or even print out—to read.

Earlier this week, I began sharing with my students plain text files, instead of PDF scans, of readings not available in their textbooks. Doing this yields some benefits:

  • They can read the text on mobile devices.
  • Visually impaired students can use a screen reading device to “read” the document.
  • They can search the text.
  • They can resize the text, either bigger or smaller.
  • They can parse the text to read with a browser utility like Apple’s Safari Reader or a read-later application like Instapaper.
  • They will appreciate the much smaller file size, like 100 times smaller, especially for students using a mobile device.

If sharing readings as plain text instead of PDF files makes so much sense, what took me so long?

Honestly, I didn’t know what tool I should use. I can’t remember the software I first used in 1997, but it’s safe to assume it doesn’t exist anymore. Acrobat offers OCR, but I haven’t had a Creative Cloud license since the days of Creative Suite 3. Although I have a lot of apps that can scan and convert to text, such as the one for a Doxie scanner or PDFPen+Scan for iOS, most of these readings are in PDF already. I don’t want to print and scan them just to do OCR.

Lo and behold, Google Drive converts PDF to text. I just learned about this yesterday, and I like the results. To use Google Drive for OCR, follow these three steps:

  1. Upload your PDF file to Google Drive, if it’s not there already.
  2. Right-click on the file
  3. Select Open With > Google Docs

After a few minutes, depending on the size of your document, you can see the converted text. The results are pretty good. Obviously, the clearer and better your text, the more accurate the OCR will be. One cool feature is that it “respects” the pagination and hyphenation of your original document. If your document has page headers or page footers, those will appear. Since I’m interested in capturing only the text—not the pagination or hyphenation—of the document, I have to remove those from my final text document.

The nice thing about having a plain text document is that you can lightly format it as needed. Since I use Markdown, I recommend using a Markdown-capable text editor to parse the text. You’ll have a relatively unadulterated text file and can export it to any format you want from there. You can export to PDF, unstyled HTML, or RTF. And as I did with my first try at OCR in 1997, you can even print it.


  1. One of my big complaints about #kidstoday is that are keen to share screenshots of a website—or worse, a photos of computer display with the browser window—instead of sharing the URL of the site. 

Textbooks for 2017 Winter and Spring Courses

Are you enrolled in one of my courses for Winter 2017 or Spring 2017?

Here are the textbooks required for your class. Most of these titles are available in print and as ebooks and are also available for sale or rental. Buy early to ensure your best pricing options.

Please note that the course websites are still not live, but I’m linking to them now for when they are ready.

Contemporary Media

A survey of contemporary media institutions and their economic, social, political and cultural implications.

Media Technologies

An overview of media technologies, including early writing and the printing press, the rise of mass culture and electronic media, and the digital revolution

Film History

An historical survey of film from the advent of commercial motion pictures in the 1890s, the proliferation of national cinema movements throughout the 20th century, and the influence of each in the formation of a global film culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

History of Broadcasting

The history of radio and television broadcasting from the 1920s to the present. Using an interdisciplinary approach, the course focuses on broadcasting institutions, issues, research trends, and program format analysis.

The above links to Amazon are affiliate links. Shopping through those links will kick back a referral fee to me. Thanks for your support!

New Website! Not That You Should Notice

Earlier this month, my web host since 2006 began experiencing extended outages. Normally, I wouldn’t care because I have been pretty inactive in posting to this site over the last few months. However, Downtown Host also hosts my professional site, at https://juanmonroy.com and because I post all my course syllabi on that site, uptime is very important, especially as midterm exams are nigh.

Back in the spring, I attended a workshop on Omeka as part of NYC Digital Humanities Week, and the presenter, Kimon Keramidas, recommended a web host built for academics, Reclaim Hosting. The latest outages forced my hand a bit: I signed up for Reclaim Hosting on Tuesday and began migrating my sites that day.

Easy Migration

My professional site was really easy to migrate. Because that’s site is state-of-the-art for 1998 web sites, it consists of just static HTML content and some Apache server side includes. I just copied the files and changed the DNS record with Hover. Within ten minutes, the site on the new host was working as it always on the old. (The process was similarly easy for the East Village Softball Association, which I also maintain using equally antiquated web technologies.)

Less Easy Migration

Because this blog is hosted on WordPress, the process was more complex. Most of it worked according to this guide, but there were some hiccups, due to having a multisite installation. Without getting into too much detail, here’s the basic steps I took:

  1. Downloaded the files from the WordPress installation from my old host.
  2. Exported the MySQL database.
  3. Uploaded the file to the juanomatic.net domain directory on my new host.
  4. Created a new MySQL database and imported the old one.
  5. Change the DNS records at Hover.
  6. Reusing the existing wp-config.php file didn’t work. I had to start from scratch. Thankfully, WordPress figured out that I already had an installation running and made me run through a database configuration instead of reinstalling everything.
  7. Reactivated Jetpack because that stopped working.
  8. Set up a Multi-site Network to resurrect the https://courses.juanmonroy.com blog.
  9. Added a courses.juanmonroy.com and *.juanmonroy.com subdomain with my new host.
  10. Reactivated the WordPress MU Domain Mapping plugin.
  11. Reactivated the WP Supercache plugin.

All of these steps basically got me back to where I was on Friday, except that the blog is now on a new host.

New, Same Old Site

So, after all that, I now have a couple of new websites, except that they should look like the old ones. But there are two distinct differences.

First, the sites seem to load a little faster, although that’s probably just a function of my imagination. After all this work, I might as well realize some improvement. The appearance to load faster might be that reward.

Second, the professional site and this blog now use HTTPS. The new host offered certificates from Let’s Encrypt, a free, automated, and open certificate authority that was launched to make securing web transmissions over HTTPS quick and easy. Now, transmissions sent between your browser and my sites are encrypted. A keen reader might have noticed a lock in the browser or that all the URLs in this post use https protocol instead of the insecure http. It’s very exciting.

A Quick Note on Lighting in Eyes Wide Shut

In Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which I screened earlier today in my Ways of Seeing class at Pratt in support of teaching mise-en-scène, I observed a use of lighting that I didn’t get to cover in class.

In the scene where Bill and Alice are in the bedroom and begin the conversation about the sexual appetites of men and women, the are shown in a single shot, embracing each other.

Vlcsnap 2016 10 04 18h00m42s538

The lighting cast on both Bill and Alice in this shot is the same. However, the background has two distinct colors to it:

  1. a warm light cast by an incandescent light in the bedroom, presumably from the lamp on the bedside table, and
  2. a very cold, blue light cast from outside, visible behind Alice, that washes over the bathroom in the background.

At this point in the scene, the two begin their debate which escalates to the point that Alice leaps up from the bed, away from Bill. The two continue their disagreement but now are framed in separate shots, stitched together through editing.

Bill is still on the bed and primarily lit by the warm incandescent light from the lamp. The entire shot glows like that light.

Vlcsnap 2016 10 04 19h02m22s124

However, Alice is now opposite Bill, over by the bathroom, and though she is still illuminated by the lighting cast from the bedside lamp, the shot glows in a much colder, blue color.

Vlcsnap 2016 10 04 18h01m11s026

The visual differences between warm and cool lighting illustrates the split that Bill and Alice have encountered in their relationship. This split will activate the crisis throughout the rest of the film and will only get resolved when they are both cast in similarly cool light after both sharing traumatic experiences.

Vlcsnap 2016 10 04 18h24m51s356