Category Archives: Academic

Fun with MOOCs!

For the uninitiated, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course (not to be confused with Mouk, a globe-trotting cartoon bear). Over the last several years, educators have been trying to figure out how to leverage the internet pedagogically, with varying levels of success. Some have developed online simulations for various specialties; others have created hybrid or flipped courses involving a combination of in-class and online learning. MOOCs offer completely online, free, open access learning, often with students numbering in the thousands across multiple countries.

MOOCs have a Canadian connection, having been developed by George Siemens at Athabasca University in conjunction with Stephen Downes of the National Research Council for a University of Manitoba course on connective knowledge in 2008. According to Downes, MOOCs fall into two categories: those that essentially follow a traditional course hierarchy with video lectures from one or more experts (sort of a digital correspondence course); and those that encourage greater peer connectivity via message boards, blog posts, or even virtual reality using a platform like Second Life. This second, more connected and creative option, is the one preferred by Downes, and it clearly supports Henry Jenkins’s theories of participatory media culture, in which users co-create online.  (Not sure if Henry and I are related, but we clearly share numerous interests.)

Lots of MOOCs exist. I’ve only played around on a couple of them, but as a dedicated life-long learner, I’m loving them! They’re open access (to anyone privileged enough to have access to a computer and the internet) and usually free (unless you want a piece of paper upon completion). So far, I’ve completed five courses through Coursera and FutureLearn, all created by different universities. I started with a medical humanities course from the University of Cape Town, moved on to a fascinating course on medieval magic from the University of Barcelona, simultaneously tackled two courses on forensic science (one from the University of Dundee and the other from Nanyang Technological University), and finally got around to filling the psychology gap in my education with a course from the University of Toronto.

Each course has taken a slightly different approach. While all have included short video lectures, usually from five to twenty minutes, some have included mini-check-in quizzes, while others demand longer tests; all have required a little bit of writing, along with the need to peer-evaluate written assignments by other students. Most have included links to other fascinating online resources. The level of required engagement with other students has varied from regular to none. Often, I can adjust my level of engagement to my available time. Some courses have been organized thematically week-to-week, while others have used more of a narrative arc. Right now, I’m working on an amazing course on ancient Rome that includes a virtual reality model students can explore.

Not sure what I’ll tackle once this course is done, but I’m sure it’ll be new and exciting! Hope you’ll join me. In the words of Odd Squad’s Dr. O, “What’s next!”

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

Bergen, Norway

There’s no such things as bad weather—only bad clothes.

This Norwegian saying seems apt, given the Canadian winter we’ve been having. I’ve been donning my heaviest Ottawa gear, layering up each time I set foot outside. Surprisingly, even though it’s much further north, it’s warmer in Bergen. Because Bergen is on the west coast of Norway, it receives the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. Because Bergen is much further north, and it’s winter, it also has very short days.

I was in Bergen for a few days over the January-February month change for a conference at the University of Bergen. While the conference itself was a fascinating multidisciplinary international affair, here I’ll focus on the trip itself. Travelling in winter, especially north (who thought that was a good idea?), with Mercury in retrograde, one should expect travel delays. My flight from Toronto to Bergen via Amsterdam, landed about half-an-hour late. While that doesn’t sound like much of a delay, it made the difference between landing in waning afternoon light and landing in full dark. Thanks to the assistance of a man on the bus, I was able to get off at the correct stop and start walking towards the University.

Have you ever tried navigating an unfamiliar, steeply hilled, medieval city, at night, with slushy snow descending onto cobblestones? No? Well, I wouldn’t recommend it. Such cities emerged organically, so streets meander at odd angles, and signage is sometimes scarce. Walking uphill, on slippery snow, over rounded cobbles, with the extra weight of my knapsack, I kept telling myself, you must not fall! I was glad that the steepness of many sidewalks was acknowledged by adjacent metal handrails. After much effort, and many questions to other pedestrians, I found the conference site; unfortunately, by this time, it had been abandoned in favour of dinner.

After further lost stumbling, walking uphill both ways, I found my hotel. Phew! I was glad to relinquish my luggage and have a hot shower. Looking at the conference schedule, I realized that I could still make it to dinner. Exhausted, I had a cab to take me to the foot of Mount Fløyen so I could catch the Fløybanen funicular railway up to the mountaintop restaurant. The ride takes about seven minutes and includes three stops. Impressive! While I could see that there were spectacular views from this height, a howling wind was driving snow into my face, so it hardly seemed a time to take photos. I was glad to get inside the lovely Nordic restaurant, complete with fireplaces and light wood finishing, where I met up with my compatriots for some pleasant dinner conversation. I was also glad to meet someone else staying at my hotel, so we could help each other get back to home base.

Saturday morning, she and I met at breakfast (included with hotel accommodation) and wound our way up the hill towards the University. It was my first look at the city in daylight and it was awesome. Classic Nordic, with the old city nestled between mountains. It was still overcast, and barely daylight, and I spent the rest of the day indoors at the conference.

Bergen, early winter morning

Bergen, early winter morning

That evening, however, I ventured out with a couple of colleagues, one of whom had been in Bergen for several days and had discovered the secret of navigating the downtown. If one walks a couple of blocks in the right direction, one emerges from the cramped and vertical medieval streets, out onto an open pedestrian boulevard, offering lovely views and easy access throughout the city. We had dinner in the amazing Bryggen district, the historic waterfront.

In the Bryggen, some buildings are a little less than square

In the Bryggen, some buildings are a little less than square

Sunday morning—I slept in. But once underway, I had a wonderful day of sightseeing. I started by wandering the length of the Vågen, the harbour that cuts deep into downtown Bergen, on the same side as my hotel. I finally found what I was looking for: the Hekse Steinen, or Witch Stone. This memorial was dedicated in 2002 to the memory of the 350 witches burned during the Norwegian witch trials. Anne Pedersdotter and others were executed in Bergen, at this stone’s location, but it marks the memory of others who met similar fates throughout Norway, especially during the Finnmark trials further north. The inscription translates as: 350 bonfire victims to miscarriage of justice 1550-1700.

The Hekse Steinen, or Witch Stone memorial

The Hekse Steinen, or Witch Stone memorial

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the old downtown. Bergen was pronounced a city by King Olaf III in 1070. Although part of the wharf dates to 1100, it wasn’t until about 1360 that it was developed as a trading centre by German Hanseatic League merchants. Merchants developed the city and the wharf, but in 1754, the area was transferred back to Norway.

The Town Square, in the Town Square

The Town Square, in the Town Square

The buildings of the Bryggen, or wharf, are all wooden, which unfortunately has led to many fires—but they keep rebuilding. The great fire in 1702 seems to have done the most damage, but the most recent was in 1955. This dramatic history is notable in the profusion of visible fire fighting hoses, visible charring on the sides of some buildings, and information posted on one building currently under renovation. In 1979, the Bryggen was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

The Bryggen historic wharf

The Bryggen historic wharf

Further along this side of the Vågen lies the Bergenhus (Bergen Fortress or Castle), which includes the Rosenkrantztårnet (Rosenkrantz Tower) and Håkonshallen (Håkon’s Hall). Håkonshallen was built in 1261 by Håkon Håkonsson in celebration of his son’s coronation and wedding, although it has seen many purposes over the centuries. While part of the Rosenkrantztårnet dates to the same period as the Håkonshallen, the existing tower was added in 1560 to enhance the city’s defenses.

Rosenkrantztårnet of the Bergenhus

Rosenkrantztårnet of the Bergenhus

While there were other activities and museums I had considered visiting, by this time, the short day was winding down. I stopped for an early supper at Dickens, took a few more retreating pictures, then returned to the hotel to pack for my morning flight.

Dickens restaurant in the main square of Bergen

Dickens restaurant in the main square of Bergen

I got to the Flesland airport in good time for my 10:15 a.m. to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, due to freezing rain and/or hail in the Netherlands, the incoming flight was delayed, and so there was no plane to take passengers back to Schiphol airport. My 10:15 was delayed until noon, meaning that I touched down in Amsterdam at 1:25 p.m., exactly when my flight was leaving for Toronto. Unfortunately, that was the flight for the day. KLM did, however, manage to get me home.

A Sense of the Landscape leaving Norway

A Sense of the Landscape leaving Norway

After a three-and-a-half hour layover in Amsterdam, I boarded a flight to Atlanta, Georgia. While catching up on movies en route, I watched wistfully as Toronto passed by below, thinking that I should perhaps request a parachute. When I arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, I had only half an hour to clear US customs, clear US security, and get to another gate via the Plane Train, in what is reputed the be the world’s biggest and busiest airport! I made it—just as last few passengers were boarding! Point-to-point, I was travelling for 25.5 hours, arriving home on one of the last subway trains at 1:25 a.m., rather than 4:30 the previous afternoon.

So, Bergen was an adventure, perhaps a little more of an adventure than I’d planned, but definitely an adventure worth having.

Homing Penguin graffiti

Homing Penguin graffiti

© Catherine Jenkins 2015 all rights reserved

 

 

Spring! And Conferences are popping up all over!

After a long and difficult winter, it’s finally spring: conference season. While academic conferences run year ‘round, there’s an overabundance of them when the winter term ends and before everyone takes off to wherever for research and/or down-time. I’d submitted abstracts for two, completely forgetting about a third conference that had been postponed from last year. So having done no conferences last year, I did three in three weeks—which is kind of nuts, but sort of fun too.DSC_0240

The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics held its third annual conference on May 9-10 in Toronto in conjunction with the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. I’d submitted a proposal on the medicalization of comic book superheroes, something I’m considering expanding towards post-doc research. I thought it might be a little off-side for them, but they went for it. I was hoping to get input from people who’ve read more comics than I have, and I wasn’t disappointed. Having taken lots of notes, however, I’ve set that work aside for now to focus on the dissertation. Can’t do a post-doc until I’ve finished the doc!

From May 20-22, I attended an independent conference held at Humber in Toronto. I’d never been to their campus and was really impressed with both its buildings and its green space. In November 2012, I’d attended a conference sponsored by the International Network for Alternative Academia in Montreal. Unfortunately, it was just days after Hurricane Sandy had decimated the north-eastern seaboard and wreaked havoc on air transportation in North America. About half the delegates weren’t able to come, and some of them spent the conference stranded in various airports. This time, in Toronto, with no major catastrophes, attendance was, surprisingly, almost as poor. A bit disappointing. What I really like about these conferences is that they’re interdisciplinary and international; we had scholars in English, philosophy, communication and linguistics, and professionals from psychiatry, writing, activism and acting (I’ve probably missed a few). People came from Ireland, Japan, Spain, the US and Canada (again, I’ve probably missed a few). The other thing I like is that although the papers presented are a jumping off point, the real event is the dialogue between attendees. There’s something exhilarating about a dozen or so intelligent people sitting around a table hashing out some thorny abstract debate. Supporting the conference’s theme of Creating Characters, Inventing Lives, I presented a paper called Embodying Story-Life examining narrative from the seemingly very different perspectives of patient narrative (drawing on work by Arthur Frank) and Native narrative (drawing on work by Thomas King). While there was some interesting discussion, this also brought me back closer to my dissertation.DSC_0239

Yesterday, I took a day-trip to Brock University in St Catharines which was this year’s host for Congress. With many of the major roads in and out of Toronto under repair and causing massive delays, I decided to take the train, which I prefer anyway. VIA proved an expensive option and had limited scheduling for this trip, so I took the GO train. I got out of the city without issue and had a smooth ride to Burlington, where I transferred to the GO bus, well beyond Toronto’s stagnant traffic. The problem is that the GO bus doesn’t arrive at the main terminal in downtown St Catharines, but stops at Fairview Mall. To get from there to Brock via transit requires two city buses and another 30-40 minutes. After two hours in transit already, I splurged on a cab; it’s a short but expensive ride. After arriving on campus, I discovered that I’d worn the wrong shoes. One doesn’t just arrive at Congress; one has to register… on the far side of campus. This was where the throng was gathered. Hot and cold running academics wandered the corridors and great hall, some, like me, looking lost, others hooking up with comrades they only see once a year.

I confess that when I first heard academics talk about Congress with breathy excitement, it sounded like an orgy—and in a way it is. Congress is a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual delights. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, aka SSHRC, Congress brings together 75 Canadian associations and over 8,000 delegates in an annual eight-day interdisciplinary intellectual feeding frenzy. Keynotes, meetings and panels make up the conference’s +2,500 events and +5,000 presentations. Clearly, it was a very different experience from the previous weeks’ more intimate conferences. Although it’s a Canadian academic mainstay, I confess that this is the first time I’ve attended. The numbers make it sound much more daunting than it is in practice, as each organization breaks off into its own area for panels and presentations.

The Canadian Communication Association conference I was part of offered six concurrent sessions, so we ended up with about a dozen people in the audience. What was really exciting was presenting with two of my colleagues from Communication and Culture, Sara Martel and Yukari Seko. It made sense, as we’re all working around imaging related to health, but in very different ways. As I think we’d all intuited when writing the panel abstract for Health Beyond the Visible Surface: Visuality, Technology, Power, our unique work fits together really well. Someone had suggested to me that co-presenting with colleagues would take the pressure off, but I actually felt the opposite. When I was writing Data Ghosts Haunt the Living: Medical Imaging’s “Productive Encounters with Corpses” I was conscious of a sense of responsibility towards the panel, not just myself. Although we had some idea of each others’ dissertation research, engaging with it in twenty-minute presentations clarified how much commonality and divergence our work has. I’m hopeful that we’ll find something more to do with this work together.

I didn’t give myself much opportunity to explore Congress—maybe next time. Someone suggested doing multiple presentations for different organizations at Congress to rack up professional development activities on burgeoning academic curriculum vitas, but that just sounds exhausting to me. I’d want to have everything prepared well in advance. We’ll see what next year brings.

So now I’m back home. Tired, fighting allergies, but enjoying the increased sun and heat. No more conferences on the books for the moment. I won’t be teaching again until late June, and even then it’s only one course. I’m looking forward to having time to focus on the dissertation. I feel much better when I’m actively working on it. Pushing to complete the writing this summer. We’ll see how that goes.DSC_0096

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved