Laura Gibbs

The God Janus: Reflecting for Janu-ary

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Dec 30, 2017

As we get near to January 1 (my favorite holiday; I love new beginnings!), I wanted to write another #ReflectBlog post here. I'll be traveling next week and in airports on Monday, so this weekend is going to have to provide my end/begin-the-new-year reflection time. For that new year reflection, I always like to invoke the Roman god Janus who gives his name to the month of the near year: January (see also Janus in Adam's first day of Canvasmas). Janus is the source of our English word "janitor" which, in Latin, meant a "doorkeeper," someone who guards the doorway, the "janua" ... and when you look at the god Janus you can see how that works: the doorway is a magical place that looks backwards and forwards, just like the god Janus does:


Janus on coin


(There's also a goddess of door-hinges, Cardea, but I don't want to get too weird here; the Romans were incredibly superstitious and they had an endless supply of gods and goddesses to make you stop and think about everything you thought, felt, or did. There was even a goddess called Tiredness: Fessonia.)


So... the word re-flection means looking-back (like return is turning back, repay is pay back, etc.). There's also a word in Latin for looking forward: pro-videntia, which contracts to form the word prudentia, a.k.a. English "prudence," a word that doesn't get the respect it deserves in my opinion! Reflection is looking back, and prudence is looking forward: put them together, and you have a powerful way to start any new project, which is from Latin pro-jectum, literally "throwing yourself forward" into something new.


Updating the project archive. And in the spirit of reflection, yesterday I did one of my favorite end-of-semester/start-of-semester activities: looking back on last semester in order to update the student Storybook archive. You can see the static list of links for my two classes here: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. And, of course, I updated randomizers! You can see the randomizers here in the Canvas Widget Warehouse; I know those widgets are probably not something other people would actually use (the other widgets are very much meant for others to use!), but I put it there in the Warehouse really just to inspire other people to make their own archives of student work to share with future students.


canvas widget screenshot


And the randomizers can go anywhere: I feature the student projects from both classes in the daily Announcements (see the sidebar), and there are also student projects in the sidebar of my Writing Laboratory site too. There are probably other places where I have embedded the widgets that I don't even remember... and that's the great thing about widgets, of course. I don't have to remember where I embedded them; I just update the script and, presto, it updates everywhere automatically.


Value for me. For me, reviewing the past projects allows me to revisit last semester in a totally positive way: the students brainstormed topics, then picked which way they wanted to go (some do Storybooks, and some go for a Portfolio option instead), and then they created their websites, and then they worked on those websites, story by story, page by page, all semester long, and I was there for every part of the journey, cheering them along. The same magic will happen again next semester, starting on January 9 (which is why I was in a rush this past week to get my classes ready to go; I'll take my holiday trip next week and then as soon as I get back, it's Week 0 and the soft start of a new semester for any students who want to begin early).


Value for students. For the students, visiting the archive of projects is a key activity in Week 1 of the class: when they see the projects of past students, that is the first step in imagining what their own project could be. It's a Janus thing: looking back, looking forward. Here's how that assignment works and, yes, it features the randomizers as a fun way to explore the hundreds of projects in the archive: Browsing the Storybooks. I can put the two classes side by side there:


screenshot of random projects


The Big Picture. Of course, you can only see so far into the future (not very far really) and you can also only see so far into the past; especially on the Internet, nothing lasts forever. Every semester a few students take their projects offline, which I totally understand (life moves one!), and I am really grateful that the large majority of students do choose to leave their work online. Over the long run, though, all the projects do disappear, which is something I've been thinking about as Google transitions from the old Google Sites into the new Google Sites. Eventually (I think in 2019?) the old Google Sites are going to be taken offline, and when that happens, all the hundreds of Google Sites built by my students will disappear. On the one hand, that makes me sad, but I've been through this once before, and way worse: back in 2010, my school purged the student web server without warning in early August, and I lost hundreds of student projects overnight, right before the semester started; it was the single worst moment of my online teaching career. That's when I switched to recommending Google Sites to my students, and slowly but surely, the site archive grew, semester by semester, until there were, once again, hundreds of sites for the students to browse and explore.


Learning to let go. I learned a lot from that experience: by not hanging on too tightly to the past, I opened myself up to a bigger future, moving forward instead of staying put. The way my school handled the shutdown was a nightmare (Google, by comparison, is doing a better job: transition update), but now, seven years later, I can say that the change was ultimately a good thing because it made me redesign my class in some very good ways, and it also prepared me for future changes to come. I had a good run with my school's student web server for ten years, and then I had a good run with the classic Google Sites for about seven years, and now I've had a good first year with the new Google Sites, and I look forward to another five or six years with this system... and then who knows what will come next!


Looking ahead. There are already 60 Storybooks built with the new Google Sites in the archive, and I'll have time to ponder if I want to archive any of the old Google Sites before they disappear. I love having a big archive of student work but, to be honest, an archive of just those 60 new Google Sites would already be big enough for the students to use in getting started... and I'll have more sites to add at the end of this Spring semester too, and also next Fall before the old Google Sites disappear. So really, no worries: I have a lot of personal favorites among the old Google Sites, but I'll be ready to let them go when the time comes, remembering them fondly. 


Lessons learned. As on the Internet, of course, so too with life itself: new things come to you every day, and you are always letting go of things that vanish into the past. Embracing new things for me is easier than letting go of old things (hey, I'm trained as a classicist: I love the old things!)... but I know that this new year to come will be full of both, like every year: embracing and letting go, both in life and online.


Which brings me back to the god Janus, who teaches us to say both hello and goodbye, maybe even both at the same time. Here are some more depictions of Janus to ponder:


depictions of Janus, facing forward and backward


And since I teach a course in Indian Epics, I also have to give a shout-out to the creator god Brahma, with his faces facing in all directions (he used to have one looking up too, but that got chopped off; long story...) — here's Brahma on the left with his consort Saraswati (goddess of wisdom), along with the gods Vishnu and Shiva and their consorts, Lakshmi and Parvati (goddesses of prosperity and of power).


Indian gods and goddesses


And now........

Happy New Year, everybody, 

with best wishes for January

and all the months that come after!