Skeptical about online course offerings? Consider the benefits for women and children.

A tear-jerker in my inbox recently (shared with permission from the student):

I am not sure if you remember me but I wanted to thank you! Hopefully, I am down to my last class and will graduate this December. When I started on this college journey (for the 2nd time in 2016- at the age of 33) via online classes, to say I was terrified would be an understatement! Growing up, I did not know that I could go to college since my family could not financially swing it. After I graduated from high school and became a wife, I was told that there was assistance out there that could help. After a few years, two kids, and a divorce, I saw my chances of graduating becoming slim and eventually dropped out. With encouragement from my work family and a strong desire to show my kids that they can reach for the stars, I came back. Anyway, that first semester back, you encouraged me, showed me kindness, and gave me hope that I could pursue a degree. I am still worried that something will happen to impede me graduating but I am getting excited!!! I wanted you to know how much your words truly helped me.

I’ve written before about how online education is a feminist endeavor for me, but if you don’t believe me, I hope this email–which was the second such one I received last week from a woman with young children (to give you a sense of how common such gratitude is)–convinces you of the value of these programs. They aren’t for every student, and they aren’t a good fit for every institution, but if you are resisting them because you think you won’t get good quality students, that you’ll cheapen the value of your traditional degree program, or that you’ll be offering inferior learning experiences, talk to those of us who love this work and find it to be meaningful and effective.

Above, single mothers with college degrees are much less likely than single mothers without degrees to live in poverty. No one, regardless of educational level, should live in poverty. But if we can’t solve that right now, we can provide more women with children opportunities to learn and earn a degree. 

My philosophy of education is that it changes family trees and communities–not just individuals, but all those they connect to. If you think that should be one of the goals of public education, I hope you’ll learn more about online programs.



Increasing Reading/Comprehension/ Engagement: The Response Journal

I spent about a decade teaching composition at the college level (a job commonly known as being “in the trenches”), and that experience, more than the many pedagogy classes I took, taught me how to be an effective, efficient teacher. (The alternative is not to finish your graduate work.)

One of the most useful tools I took from that experience was the response journal. For those of you who teach literature or comp, it’s a staple, but I have found that it’s a classroom-transforming tool in any class where texts are important.

In my version, it’s document with a header with their name, my name, the course name, the date, and the text that we’re focusing on. They then insert three columns and 50 rows. (Okay, not really 50, but start there and have them delete the unused rows when they have finished the assignment.)

  • Column 1 is a direct quotation, a summary, or an annotation.
  • Column 2, much narrower, is the page number where it appears (or, if assigning a film or podcast or radio broadcast, the minute marker).
  • Column 3, roughly the same width as Column 1, is a response to the information in column 1. It can be a question that the passage prompts, a personal story, a connection to some other text or what the student has learned in this class already or in another class. It can reference pop culture or politics or history.

Each row is thus a specific reference to the text, a page number/minute marker to reference it, and engagement with it.

Finally, beneath their table, I have them complete the following sentence: “I would like Dr. Barrett-Fox’s help understanding…” “N/A” is a legitimate answer here.

I actually give them a template and also create a video for them showing them how to create this document. The 3 minutes or so it takes to record and upload a video showing them how to insert a table is worth it. Trust me.

You may want to assign students a certain number of rows (1 for every 3 pages of a book or 2 for each section of an article or something like that) or a total word count. I often use this assignment in my Soc of Sex class, a 3000-level course, and use a minimum word count of 10 words per 1 page–so 2000 words for 200 pages. Many students far exceed the word count, but the minimum is to help those who think they don’t have much to say to return to the text.

Here’s what I love about the assignment (and what students end up admitting works for them, even though they might not like doing it at first):

  1. It increases the percent of students who read. If I use reading quizzes, many students will be take a risk on multiple choice. If they can get 3 out of 5 multiple choice questions right by guessing, they’ll be happy with that. I’m not–because I want them to actually read.
  2. It teaches them how to choose when to directly quote and when to summarize.
  3. It teaches them how to take notes–identifying key passages and documenting them in such a way as when that final paper topic is assigned, they’ve already done the work of finding the important parts of a book. And that, in turn, typically means better final papers.
  4. It keeps the focus on the text. Especially in classes where there is room for disagreement and people have strong opinions, a reading journal keeps us focused on what we have in common–literally, the common book we are reading.
  5. It slows down the jump to argument. We often push students to stake claims and make arguments before they’ve done the work to earn the right to share an opinion. (Yeah, I said that.) Let’s be frank: it’d be better for everyone if we slowed down the movement to argument and gave more time to reading comprehension and analysis. That’s why we’re in school–to enter a discussion because we’ve done the work of learning the content of the conversation. By demanding that students link their responses to the text, I slow them down and help them ground their argument in our shared reading. This isn’t because I’m training New Critics but because I find that my students tend to veer more toward ignoring the text (often because they haven’t read it) rather than really engaging it. By labeling that third column “response,” not just “Do you agree or disagree?”, I stress that we respond to texts in many and varied legitimate ways. They are invited to make connections that I can’t assign to them by bringing multiple parts of their lives, as they see fit to share, to the conversation. It respects their lived experiences and their privacy, invites connections without demanding that students trade personal information.
  6. They improve class discussion. As long as students do this assignment, they have something to talk about. I can put them in small groups according to which quotation they selected. I can teach them how to code their own responses for themes and organize them into groups by theme. I can ask everyone to select their favorite passage from the book or ask “Who made a connection to another text we’ve already read?”
  7. They are relatively easy to grade. In Soc of Sex, in particular, I have to scan for attention to disclosures of sexual violence or to comments that might signal someone has a demeaning or threatening attitude that I should watch out for. But, mostly, I grade these on a scale of 1-10, and within the first few submissions, most people are earning a 10 consistently. And I’m okay with that, because it means that the students are doing what I wanted them to get out of the assignment: better reading comprehension, better engagement, better preparation for class. I grade very simply–I check for word count (which I ask them to include in the header) and then skim, looking for any red flags. Assuming there are none, I select one spot in the response column and share an encouraging word about it: “I enjoyed reading your perspective as the child of pastors on preaching about purity.” “Thank you for sharing a bit about your own struggle from judgment to compassion for women who have had abortions.” “I see that you care a lot about queer students on our campus. Our Lavender Graduation is coming up soon, and I’d love to see you there! Here are the details…” This is also where I recommend further reading or start to guide students toward topics for their final paper. By keeping my comments positive and light, I free up students to write without so much fear of judgment.
  8. I can quickly identify comprehension questions. By having students put into words what they don’t understand, I can quickly see if there are patterns to their struggle, which helps me become a better teacher because it shows me what I might not have explained well or might have incorrectly assumed they understood.

I make these due by the start of class, online. Other people collect them every few weeks, but I find that this undermines their effectiveness as a tool to shape class conversation.

If you assign a text each day of class, this might mean 3 graded assignments per week. I recommend, in that case, writing into the syllabus that you will grade 1/3 of these at random. Then you are grading 1 per week, which is much more reasonable. Remember that grading 1/3 of them doesn’t mean you have to grade the same 1 out of 3 for everyone. You could grade students Abbot through Harmon on Monday, Ito through Mendes on Wednesday, and Norman through Zimmerman on Friday. Or you could grade everyone’s Friday submission. My advice, if you grade only some of these, is to be sure to grade the last one. Otherwise, if you tell students you are grading 14 of them, they’ll stop submitting as soon as they submit 14.

And, personally, I don’t drop any. If someone wants to play chicken with me and ends up failing to submit on a day I grade, that’s a risk they took. I don’t have to do extra grading to soften the consequence of their choice.

If you try these out, let me know how they work for you!


“How Extremists Manipulate the Media (and You) to Look More Powerful than They Are”

I recently got to work with journalist Allie Clouse at the Knoxville News Sentinel on her report on how hate groups use social media to promote themselves. Her story was prompted by a sermon by a Tennessee pastor and sheriff who called for the execution of queer people. How did such a nasty argument enter the world of social media? How might social media inspire us to make ever-more ugly arguments in order to stand out in a crowded landscape? Clouse writes, “Combine a polarizing viewpoint with shock value and you’ve got a story. Add a divided political climate and you’ve got a movement.”

See the source image

Above, the people of All Scripture Baptist Church.

I hope you’ll check out the article, and if you find it helpful, support your local journalists with a subscription to your local newspaper.



Look what I found at a t-shirt kiosk at the mall yesterday.



I’d love to hear what its wearers make of Jesus’ final words.


Justice Thomas Believes that Religious Oaths Inhibit Lying. He’s Wrong.

I rarely overestimate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, but this one still caught me by surprise: his recent argument, delivered at Pepperine University, that Christians are more likely to uphoad their oaths of as lawyers:

I think it’s interesting in a profession where we all take an oath, that they would look at people who have strong faith as somehow not good people, when, if you’re an atheist, what does an oath mean? If you are a Christian and you believe in god, what is an oath? . . . You’ve taken an oath to God. . . . [religion] enhances your view of the oath.

Presumably, Thomas would extend this to lawmakers, presidents, judges, police officers, and everyone else who takes an oath of office.

Image result for clarence thomas

When I think that Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall, I begin to doubt whether the arc of the universe is actually bending toward justice.

The problems with this are myriad.

First, it’s naive to think that nonbelievers lie or deflect their duties more than people of faith.

Second, liars will break an oath. Requiring an oath to God just rules out people too honest to make one. It doesn’t rule in honest people.

Third, if the only reason you are being honest is because you made a promise to do so, your character is already poor. This is one reason why Jesus tells people not to bother with oaths–to just let your yesses be our yesses and your noes be your noes. Making a promise on top of your plain words suggests that any time you aren’t making that promise, you aren’t required to live up to your word.

It’s also ignorant of the Constitution, which doesn’t require an oath of office for the presidency but permits an affirmation instead.

The founders had the option of creating a religious test for office. If they thought that people of faith were superior politicians, they would have required it. Instead, in Article VI, they specify that what is most important is fidelity to the Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

We settled this at the start. When Justice Thomas says he’s an originalist, he’s lying. And his religious belief doesn’t seem to have prevented it.


Brief lessons from Buddhism about hate

At 606, we write a lot about Christianity and hate. Today, I want to draw from another religious tradition to enhance the conversation.

Thanks to my friend Katy for bringing this helpful article from the Zen Studies Podcast to my attention.

The author identifies the relationship between fear, anger, and hate–something affirmed by psychologists who study hate as well.

Fear, anger, and hatred are all intimately related, and they’re essentially different stages of the manifestation of ill-will with delusion mixed in. The arising of these negative states starts with fundamental fear that you won’t get what you need, or that you’ll be harmed in some way. Anger arises as an instinct to protect. Throw in a good dose of delusion – the belief that our well-being is separate from that of other beings, and that clinging to the self results in happiness – and we start “othering.” We think of the people we blame for our misfortune, or those we feel threatened by, and conclude they must be fundamentally different than we are. For some reason (frequently based on superficial differences like race or cultural background) the other is less than we are, and somehow deserves misfortune. This conclusion overrides our natural empathy and compassion and our attitude can harden into hostility and hatred.

In other words, by denying the fact that our well-being is the well-beings of other people–that, in some way, there are no other people-we begin to create the ground where hate can grow.

Image result for hate in buddhismAbove, monks outside the Tree of Life synagogue.

SHS once again stirs up violence againt Trump’s critics

Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ insistence that Donald Trump is owed an apology by Democrats and the media wasn’t unexpected. It’s a a classic move that perpetrators of wrongdoing make when anyone hints that they should be held accountable: DARVO. They Deny, Atttack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.  It’s one of many tactics that the Trump administration uses that may be unpleasantly familiar to victims of sexual violence–unsurprising given the president’s own commitment to sexually harming women.

But Sanders took it even a step farther, she called people who supported a fair, honest investigation into Russian interference with US elections “traitors” and suggested that they be punished with death. Here she is on the Today Show:

“They are literally, the media and Democrats have called the president an agent of a foreign government. That is an accusation equal to treason, which is punishable by death in this country.”

Accusing the president of treason IS treason, she argues.

Keep in mind that no one accused him of treason. He was being investigated. Being investigated isn’t the same thing as being accused.

And accusing someone of treason isn’t an act of treason. That’s like saying that accusing someone of being racist is being racist. (Oh, wait, lots of white ladies like SHS believe that, too.)

Who does she mean?

Last night, she tweeted an enemies list, just to be sure that the “lone wolf” attackers she’s inspiring “hurt the right people.” 

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 6.41.32 AM.png

SHS’s words will be understood by fanatical rightwingers as an invitation to violence. But that’s her point–to incite violence against people she sees as Trump’s political opponents. She wants it as much as white supremacists want mosque shootings. And when bombs get sent to newspaper rooms or gunmen open fire, she won’t mourn any deaths that might occur or worry about the future of a free press. Instead, she’ll blame critics of Trump for stirring up dissent.

We don’t need foreign influence to undermine democracy and endanger American lives. We’ve got Sarah.


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