VRAIL, Stage 2

Today was the second stage of my virtual run across Illinois, going through the tiny town of Marcelline and ending at the intersection of 2450th Ave. and 875th St. (measured from Quincy, the largest city in the county). The route crossed Range Line St., which is a nice trace of geography on the landscape from the township and range system. I get a kick out of the fact that Bear Creek is the water body you can see snaking through this image, and the township is called Ursa.

Here’s the climb out of the Mississippi River Valley. Not exactly a bluff, but there’s definitely a difference in the landscape.

Virtual Run across Illinois (VRAIL) 2020

Among the many things I’m missing right now are a) travel and b) road races. I have a hard time keeping up regular running when I don’t have a half marathon I’m aiming for. So, inspired by The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee, I’m going to run across Illinois this summer. Virtually.

It turns out if you go straight west from where I live, you pretty much hit the westernmost point in the state. And end-to-end, mapped out as a running route, Illinois is about 228 miles wide. Pretty sure I can pull that off between May 1 and August 31. Along the way, I suspect I’ll learn some things about my state!

Stage 1: 6.51 miles (May 3)

The journey begins in Adams County (first in alphabetical order, how about that?) and the little town of Meyer. According to Wikipedia, Meyer currently has 9 residents. The rest have left over the years due to major flooding from the Mississippi River, the most recent being just last year. The aerial above shows traces of that flooding on the flat-as-a-table land to the east of the river. StreetView from August 2019 shows that some houses in Meyer have been raised up Gulf Coast-style in anticipation of future flooding:

Meyer used to have a ferry connecting it to the much larger town of Canton, MO, but it ended service in 2014 when the repairs to the ferryboat were too much for the grain co-op that ran it. I can’t imagine taking a little two-car ferry across the Mississippi, but it’s a hundred-mile drive otherwise.

Today’s stage basically ends at the edge of the floodplain, so the next several stages will have something I’m not used to in Illinois: hills!

Seeing absence

One of the ways that newspapers have been demonstrating the abrupt change in daily life in the time of coronavirus is by publishing above-the-fold photos of empty or near-empty transportation infrastructure. First were images from China showing wide boulevards and highways with a single pedestrian or cyclist (e.g., Ettinger 2020). This same article from mid-March showed airports, train stations, streets, and even the canals of Venice almost entirely devoid of people. Subsequent photos from New York, London, and Kiev showed nearly-empty subway stations and trains. Our absent presence as commuters and travelers becomes very visible through these media accounts.

In the U.S., the Seattle Times led the trend with an “eerie” image of Interstate 90 with a handful of cars at rush hour (Gutman 2020). The Los Angeles Times on the same day also used the word “eerie” to describe the free-flowing traffic on the freeways through downtown (Nelson 2020), as have many other news outlets. Later, drone images in the Boston Globe, like those from Milan and Wuhan, showed empty highways from a greater distance, with the multi-minute video emphasizing this was not a lucky shot by the photographer, but an ongoing absence.

In many of these photos, the captions emphasize “nearly-empty” or “almost-deserted” transportation infrastructure. Often, there is a single person on foot or on a bicycle traversing a street that is usually full of cars, or a lone person on a subway platform that is usually jam-packed. Presumably, the photographer would only have had to wait a few minutes for that person to pass in order to have a shot with no people at all. But the visual impact of that lone figure is striking. On the one hand, it calls to mind post-apocalyptic films and TV shows, where one of the first visual indicators we usually have of how bad things have gotten is our hero(es) walking along a highway littered with abandoned cars. The news photos draw on our familiarity with that unsettling image to quickly get the message across of how dramatically life has changed.

At the same time, the lone figure on the multi-lane highway or in the metro station emphasizes that life is going on. It might be a worker who has no choice but to physically go to work; it might be someone defying authority; it might be someone going out for groceries. At any rate, it is a small reminder that we are not actually in a post-apocalyptic world: cars are still functioning, people are still going about some of their daily business, and the world will (presumably) resume its normal functioning in time.

Beyond infrastructure photos, there are other visual indicators of what’s missing from the streets: Twitter is full of screenshots of major metro areas in Google Maps with the traffic layer on, showing green roads in all directions during rush hour instead of the usual angry red segments. After about a week, images started to be shared of air quality monitors in L.A., showing the same bright green as on the traffic maps. Anonymized mobile phone data from those vehicles still on the road showed that traffic speeds were 27% faster that normal in LA, 31% faster in Washington, DC, and 25% faster in Chicago in the first week after March 11 (Nelson 2020). CalTrans data on traffic speeds showed a gain of 100,000 hours that greater Los Angeles was not stuck in traffic on March 12 and 13 alone (ibid.).

Unlike most articles on the “eerie” highways, the L.A. Times piece noted the implications of this rare free flow: people aren’t going to work (Nelson 2020). In other words, what Anthony Downs said almost thirty years ago is still true: congestion is a good thing (Downs 1992). Downs was writing about the phenomenon of induced traffic, whereby building more roads and more lanes only produces more congestion in the long run. The only ways to really reduce congestion are to shift commuting patterns in space, in time, or by mode. Part of Downs’ argument, though, was that congestion is a positive indicator. It demonstrates that a metro area is lively and productive, that people are going to work, to recreation, and to shopping. If millions of people need to be in the same place at the same time, there’s going to be delay. Cities with perfectly free-flowing traffic all day long are unhealthy cities (Downs 1992).

So there’s a paradox here: we see our currently-empty roads and transit stations as “eerie,” maybe even threatening, but we also don’t like it when they’re full. How many reports are written, how much public money is spent, to reduce congestion in metro areas across the world? Now that we don’t have that congestion, its very absence serves as a stark reminder of how abnormal the world is at this moment. And since those of us working from home or otherwise self-isolating are not on the empty infrastructure ourselves, we are reliant on the images from news media and social media to show us that eeriness.

Most of us want to go back to normal—although the stress of commuting suggests that we don’t, not really (Bissell 2018). Is this a utopian moment for considering other ways of doing things? Perhaps—but that’s a subject for someone else to take up. In the meantime, many of us working from home look at the pictures of nearly-empty roads and metro stations and look forward to the day when we’ll be stuck in traffic once again.

Works Cited

Bissell, D. 2018. Transit Life: How Commuting Is Transforming Our Cities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Downs, A. 1992. Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Ettinger, Z. 2020. Eerie photos show empty airports, trains, and roads across the world as people stay home amid coronavirus. Business Insider, March 13, https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-empty-airports-trains-roads-during-coronavirus

Gutman, D. 2020. Seattle in the age of coronavirus: Not quite empty, but eerie. Seattle Times, March 15,

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattle-in-the-age-of-coronavirus-not-quite-empty-but-eerie/

Nelson, L. 2020. Eerily empty freeways: a symbol of how the coronavirus has hurt Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times, March 15,

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-15/coronavirus-covid-19-traffic-commuting-los-angeles-405-freeway.

Planning a graduate seminar

This spring, I’m teaching a graduate seminar for the first time in four years. At its height, it had 17 people enrolled, although it’s settled down in 14. Given that I’m also teaching an upper-division undergrad class with 24 people, and I need to get more research done than I did last semester, I spent some time over winter break considering a) what work I was going to require of my students and b) what grading that was going to require of me.

As part of this, I did a quick Google search for the syllabi I could find for graduate seminars in geography. Most classes and their syllabi have disappeared into the classroom management system void, but I still found about a dozen from the past couple of years that I could model. I wanted to get a sense of what was required and how it was weighted. Without giving away courses, institutions, or instructors, here are the models I found:

  1. Participation: 30%
    Lead two discussions: 30%
    Essay (2500-3000 words, based on at least five readings): 40%
  2. Participation
    Evaluation of others (this is in my notes, I’m not sure what it means)
    Three 2-3 page reviews of supplemental materials
    “Review-and-agenda” paper of 15-25 double-spaced pages with 20 references
    Progress reports on the paper
    15-minute class presentation on the paper
  3. Participation: 25%
    Lead discussion: 25%
    Term paper (5000 words): 50%
  4. Participation: 40%
    Weekly QAQC paper (quotation, argument, question, connection): 30%
    Essay (10 pages): 30%
  5. Participation: 20%
    Two exegises: 20%
    Lead two discussions: 20%
    Either one or two papers, 20-24 double-spaced pages total: 40%
  6. Participation: 50%
    Exhibit: 15%
    Term paper: 35%
  7. Participation: 20%
    Presentation/facilitation: 10%
    Four outlines, four reaction papers: 20%
    Term paper (4000-5000 words), including peer review: 50%
  8. Participation: 20%
    Term paper (12-15 pages)
    10-15 minute presentation
  9. Six reaction papers: 33%
    Term paper (6000 words or 22 double-spaced pages): 66%
  10. Participation: 15%
    Weekly reaction paper and leading two discussions: 20%
    Paper proposal: 5%
    Term paper (6000 words): 50%
    15-minute presentation: 10%
  11. Participation: 25%
    Lead discussion: 10%
    Weekly reaction paper: 20%
    Paper proposal: 5%
    Term paper (15-25 pages): 30%
    10-minute presentation: 10%

Some thoughts:

  • Wow, is that a lot of variation in how much participation counts.
  • I thought weekly reaction papers were de rigueur, but only about a third of these classes require them. Is that to save on grading?
  • There’s also a lot of variation in length of the term papers, and in how structured their assignments are.

What I came up with based on a combination of these and my desire to keep the volume of grading under control so I could do it in a timely fashion was this:
Participation: 15% (self-assessed)
Weekly reaction paper: 25% (started off in the QAQC format, but now is more open)
Lead discussion once in a team of two: 10% (many grad students have never led a class discussion, so I thought partnering up would help)
10-minute presentation on a book not on the syllabus: 10% (that way we get to hear about a lot of different books that are out there while primarily reading articles)
Short term paper 1: case study of an activist organization or issue: 20% (to apply theories from class to a real-life case, but also to understand that “mobility justice” predates academia)
Short term paper 2: review-and-agenda paper: 20% (to identify what literature is most useful for thesis/paper projects)

How does this compare to your recent graduate seminars, either as a teacher or a student?

Taking student evaluations into account

After writing about some of the new things I tried last semester, I thought I’d wait to write about the rest until student evaluations had come back and I could see how it went. They have come back, and they were pretty good!

I know that there are many, many problems with student evaluations, including a growing list of studies on how they are biased against women and against people of color, especially for junior faculty. There’s a campus-level committee at my university working to come up with some other way of evaluating teaching, and I’ll be interested to see what they recommend. (For the record, classroom observations are not any better unless they’re done by a trained professional, IMHO. Biases exist at all levels of seniority.)

But I’m going to be honest: I usually get good evaluations, and so I don’t mind the process as much as many people. (In fact, I had strong enough evaluations my first three years at my R1 institution that my third-year review letter warned me I might be spending too much time on teaching–but that’s for another post.) So that’s a caveat to keep in mind.

I always choose specific questions to go on the evaluation form that I really want to hear about, and I always read the free-form comments on the back. And I always make changes based on the specific things that students suggest. I’ve worked to more closely integrate the textbook with lecture (without too much overlap between the two), I’ve changed the nature and number of assignments, I’ve kept some experiments that worked really well, like a weekly essay question instead of exams, and I’ve tried to do a better job of explaining how the assignments relate to the lecture and textbook.

For the team-taught class I wrote about before, the main feedback about the format was that the students liked it: they thought each instructor had something to contribute and that the class worked better because we could each share our different perspectives. We did joke a few times in class about the differences between our viewpoints, so I’m pleased that was seen as a positive. That’s great news, and makes me want to consider more team-teaching opportunities in the future.

They also said we could have been a little quicker with getting grades back, which was a very polite way to put a totally fair criticism. I’m really trying to work on that one this semester, because it’s a chronic problem of mine. Always room for improvement!

Book Review: Chicago’s Redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs

I have a goal for myself of reading one academic book a month outside of my regular research. It’s more challenging than I would have thought to find the time to just read one chapter here and there, but it’s good to know what’s going on in the world of geography.

This month, I read David Wilson’s Chicago’s Redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs. Let me say first that I highly recommend reading the work of people in your own department: you can just hear them saying the words that are on the page, and you also get to know them better through their writing.

Image result for redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs"

I’ve written my own book about Chicago, and I always love reading others’ takes on one of the most well-studied cities in the world. Wilson’s perspective is from a part of the city that academics don’t often see: the residents of the South Side and their participation in urban life through the blues clubs for which the city is famous. These clubs are under threat, however, from the “redevelopment machine” and the ways in which it draws on those clubs as authentic local culture while bringing in the forces of gentrification to eventually tear them down or commodify them into an “authentic” experience for outsiders rather than a vital community resource.

I really enjoyed the chapters that put forth an ethnography of blues clubs, because they clearly showed the internal trade-offs and the push-pull nature of gentrification at the level of the establishment. Club owners try to bring in different kinds of music or more expensive drinks to attract a more upscale clientele. Club patrons recognize this as a business strategy, but they also resent and sometimes push back against the perception that this place that’s so important to them is trying to change. One of Wilson’s main contributions with this book is to illustrate how gentrification operates through commercial establishments, not just changes in housing stock, and I think it’s worth reading for that alone.

When David was doing the ethnographic work for this book, I remember him telling me about making the two-hour-plus drive home to Urbana from these clubs very, very late at night, not to mention the time it took to just hang out in order to gain the trust of the people he was studying. Judging from the book, I would say it was worth it!

How many hours I spend working

When I was an assistant professor, I started tracking how many hours I worked per week. I started this to make sure I was spending enough time on what I was “supposed to.” (And because my spouse and I had already been tracking our work and housework hours to make sure my long commute in California was adequately compensated, but that’s for another post.) I don’t know that it made me change my habits at all, but it seemed to average about 40 hours per week during the school year and 20 hours per week in the summer.

After I was tenured, I kept keeping track out of habit, but then decided at some point to stop. And then after becoming a full professor, I felt like I was doing no research at all compared to teaching and my new service responsibilities. So this fall, I got a nifty time-tracking app set up, and I’ve been keeping track of everything I do.

I have five broad categories: Research, Teaching, Administration, E-mail, and Community (departmental coffee hour, colloquium, etc). I broke out e-mail because I wanted to see how much time it specifically took, not just reading messages but dealing with their contents. I averaged 43 hours of work a week in the fall semester, broken down like this:

That’s not bad, right? Research is almost a third of my time, teaching is over a third of my time, and everything else is a little under a third. I mean, research is the only thing that’s important as far as The System is concerned, so that piece of the pie should be much bigger. But overall, it looks pretty balanced.

However. When I record my hours, I break them down into specific activities: meetings, classes, large service commitments like being on the university’s climate action plan team, grant writing, etc. When we look at that pie chart, it’s a little different:

Half of the admin came from chairing our tenure track job search. That’s understandable, and I’d gladly do it again (if only because it meant we were hiring again!). Teaching is almost entirely my two undergraduate classes (of which the team-taught one was almost exactly half the hours of the other one), plus meeting with grad students and working on my transportation geography textbook.

The real shocker was research. About 70% of the time I had marked as research was traveling to or attending conferences. I went to three: Regional Studies Association in Montreal; Transport, Traffic, and Mobility in Paris; and the West Lakes Regional Meeting of the AAG in Cedar Falls, IA. Which means a tiny 1% of my time went to data analysis, 2% went to grantwriting (and that was more than normal, since I’m on sabbatical next year and was applying for a lot of fellowships), and 3% went to reading books and articles in my field. A measly 3% went to writing, which again, is the only thing besides grantwriting that really matters according to R1 university standards.

So what am I going to do with this information? Well, since my role in our job search is largely done, that will free up about 4 hours a week. E-mail didn’t take up as much time as I feared. Teaching will take much more time, since my grad seminar will require a lot of hours of reading and grading. I only have one conference in the spring, although since the AAG takes up a whole week, I’m expecting the conference hours will be about half of what they were in the fall. Now, that’s not all directly transferable to additional hours for other things: I’m not going to replace my 26-hour journey to Paris with 26 hours of writing, for example.

It got me thinking about conferences, though. I did get some great things out of going to Paris, including getting to know people with whom I’m co-sponsoring sessions at AAG, learning about new books that are coming out, and motivating myself to make at least a little progress on my research. But is that worth the time? There’s a huge debate right now about academics flying to conferences in an era of climate change, which I’m pretty firmly ambivalent about but am getting very interested in the discourse. (Again, for another post.) What I learned from analyzing my hours like this is that there’s another aspect to deciding whether or not to attend a conference. We all have only so many hours in the week, and hours spent in transit or in paper sessions are hours we’re not working on our own research. Obviously, we get ideas from hearing other people’s work, including potential collaborations; I’m working on an article right now with someone that came about because we’ve attended multiple conferences together. But at least for an introvert like me, maybe I need to be more careful about the conferences I choose: what am I going to get out of going there in person? Is it worth my time?

Have you tracked your hours? Made modifications to your schedule as a result? Or do you not want to monitor yourself like that?

2020 Resolutions

  1. Eat less sugar. I’m not even talking cutting down on refined sugars by reading labels or switching sweeteners. I’m talking not buying candy or caramel corn and then eating the whole bag within a few days. If I don’t buy it, it won’t be around to eat.
  2. More cross-training. Especially with the trouble I’ve been having with my calves and IT band, I can’t just run. Once a week biking indoors for now, along with regular yoga and daily foam rolling.
  3. Write 20 minutes a day on my research. That’s such a minimal thing, but I wasn’t able to manage it last fall.

Reflections on teaching, part 2

Especially for upper-division, discussion-based courses, it’s vital to have input from students on a regular basis in class. In the past, I’ve assessed participation in terms of perceived attendance, recorded attendance, perceived frequency of speaking in class, and quasi-recorded frequency of speaking in class. Obviously, these a) are subjective and prone to bias, b) favor outspoken students, and c) favor quantity over quality. As an introvert who had to force myself to speak up in class once every few weeks, I know that simple measures of participation won’t foster individual growth or make quieter students feel comfortable.

I read a Chronicle article (I think) over the summer about class participation and how hard it is to measure, but how important it can be for student learning. There was a link to a self-assessment rubric from the University of Kansas’s Center for Teaching Excellence (here) and a discussion of how to use it to grade participation. My co-instructor thought this was a fine idea, so with a few modifications, we handed it out at the beginning of the semester, asked students to fill it in, then scanned their responses and returned them. The idea was to have them set goals for themselves and then self-evaluate at the end.

Section of self-assessment rubric, modified from KU’s CTE. As a student, I would generally rate myself a 6 in this category.

What I like about this rubric is that it considers multiple dimensions to class participation. There’s preparing for class, as in doing the reading. (Bet you most people don’t think of that as participation per se, but it is.) There’s being active in small group discussions and the class as a whole, not only in terms of sharing your own ideas, but encouraging other students to share theirs. I added categories here for those who talk too much and don’t give others room to speak, and for those who engage with the material internally, even if they can’t get themselves to raise their hand. There’s also paying attention in class and not being distracted by texts or other browser tabs–maybe a more passive form of participation, but still vital. And finally, I added a category of participation outside of class, which meant contacting other students for notes, discussing topics after class, or coming to office hours.

Unfortunately, we kind of fell through on implementing this. It wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through the semester that I realized we hadn’t been checking in with the class on how they were meeting their participation goals, and at that point, it wasn’t clear they would be able to make many adjustments. So we asked for a self-assessment at the end of the semester, which wasn’t done very consistently thanks to our late request, so we had to make do with what we had. But we did still get some good feedback from students on how they prepared for in-class participation by doing the readings to a greater extent than in previous classes, or how they talked about concepts with their friends outside of class even if they weren’t confident enough to speak up in discussion, or how they tried to encourage other, quieter students to share their thoughts.

So in Spring 2020, I’m going to try this again with both my upper-division undergrad/grad class and my graduate seminar, and we’ll see how it goes!

Reflections on teaching, part 1

I’m always reflecting on and trying to improve my teaching. I read the Chronicle of Higher Ed, including their weekly teaching newsletter. I pay attention on Twitter to conversations about how to be more inclusive in the classroom and how to make things easier for students while still expecting a lot from them intellectually. I usually teach one large gen ed class in the fall (100-110 students), small-to-medium classes in the fall and spring (20-25 students), and occasionally a graduate seminar. So I have a variety of classes to work with, and a variety of students as well.

In keeping with James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching book and philosophy, I choose one or two big things to try out each semester. (I also make small changes based on student evaluations, like four smaller written assignments instead of three medium-sized ones, etc.) Here’s the first of my reflections on how those changes worked in Fall 2019.

The first big change I made was to team-teach a class for the first time. Our GEOG 412, Geospatial Technologies and Society, is one of very few classes in the U.S. that addresses the political, social, and critical aspects of GIS, remote sensing, and “big” geospatial data. The course used to be team-taught by our critical cartography expert and our spatial analysis expert, until the former retired. I took on the course in Fall 2017 and had a great time with it. Digital geographies might not be my area of research, but it’s a fascinating topic, and teaching it is one way to keep up with the field. But since we have an expert in our department–Dr. Brian Jefferson, whose forthcoming Digitize and Punish is going to be an amazing book–we decided to team-teach the course.

We are fortunate that our department policy is for a team-taught course to count as a full course for each instructor, because a 50-50 split often really means a 75-75 split. (In my case, this class required almost exactly half the time as my other class, but that might be a function of other things…I’ll be posting soon about my hours worked during the fall semester.) This particular class meets twice a week, with the first meeting consisting of a short lecture and a lot of discussion, and the second meeting consisting of lab activities. We divided up the weeks of the course ahead of time and were responsible for finding readings and developing labs for our respective weeks. We agreed that we’d both attend all of the discussions, but that we only needed to come to the lab when it was our “assigned” week.

I would definitely recommend the experience. We each had different strengths with regards to subject matter, but we were both able to contribute to each other’s weeks as well. We have very different teaching styles: I plan out my classes in five-minute increments and focus on the empirical, while he’s much better at explaining theory, as well as extemporizing and getting a lively discussion going. For some people, that might be a source of friction; for us, it meant that we complemented each other well. I learned to let go a little of my need to plan everything ahead of time, which for an upper-division, discussion-based course, is probably a good thing. We were able to negotiate an equitable distribution of grading (group projects, term paper, and class presentation) with little difficulty, although it probably would have made more sense to do the negotiations at the beginning of the semester rather than after the projects had come in. We did have a little confusion with students contacting one but not both of us with regard to requests for extensions or grading questions, but that could be easily fixed in the future. (We’re still waiting on course evaluations to see how well everything worked from the student’s perspective.)

Have you team-taught a course? Or taken one as a student? What worked well or didn’t?