Skip navigation
All People > Laura Gibbs > Laura Gibbs' Blog > 2018 > December

As I mentioned in my earlier post today, I took a 10-day vacation from blogs and Twitter right after finishing the semester... you could call it a "read-cation" -- I didn't travel anywhere, but instead I relied on the magic travel made possible by books! Life is stressful right now, and I needed a new project that I could work on to take my mind off things, something that would be really exciting and useful, but also a project that would involve some more-or-less mindless activity that I could use to unwind. Some people knit or do needlepoint; I make websites, ha ha. So, here is my new project: BRER RABBIT: TALES of a TRICKSTER.


screenshot of blog post


I'm guessing most people are familiar with the character of Brer Rabbit, but what you might not know is that the Brer Rabbit stories and other African-American folklore collected by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 19th-century constitute one of the most important American folklore collections of that period. Harris gathered stories from black storytellers and worked meticulously on presenting the stories in the storytellers' own style of speech -- a form of African-American vernacular English and also some stories told in Gullah. Because Harris's story collections were published before 1923, they are in the public domain, which means the texts are freely available online. However, the use of dialect makes them difficult to read. In addition, Harris presented his storytellers inside a fictional framework written in standard English in which Uncle Remus and the other storytellers are telling the stories to a little white boy. This framework was a way for Harris to placate white readers and market his books for children, but that fictional frame undermines the value of the books as folklore documents, as well as making for very uncomfortable reading nowadays. When Julius Lester wrote his brilliant modern versions of the stories, he kept the idea of Uncle Remus as the storyteller ("Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales"), but he dispensed with the little-boy frame.


My goal with this project is to do something similar to what Lester did in his Uncle Remus project, but in a public-domain format so that the resulting stories will be free for everyone to use. Because Harris's stories are in the public domain to begin with, there are no restrictions on their re-use in this way! So, here is how my project is proceeding:


1. Collect all the original Harris stories online. There are 185 stories, and I now have digital texts for 128 of them, thanks to Project Gutenberg. For the remaining 57 stories, I have page images with OCR (from Hathi Trust), but they need to be transcribed. That is the nice mindless part of this project: I like transcribing.


2. Remove the frametale from each story. The frametale with the little boy is interwoven with the story as back-and-forth dialogue between Uncle Remus and the little boy, so this is not completely mechanical, but it's not really difficult. So far I've removed the frame material from 48 of the 185 stories; here they are.


3. Standardize the spelling. This is the trickiest part, but also the most useful task! I want to keep the vernacular style of speech but not the phonetic spelling. I've tested it out on just one story so far, choosing one of my favorites: A Story About the Little Rabbits. I'll be experimenting with this some more, looking at examples from work by other people working on African-American folklore, especially Roger Abrahams (pinging Linda J. Lee who knew him in person, which is so cool; he is one of my heroes). In his African American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, for example, Abrahams decided to normalize the verb tenses, putting story narratives into the past tense even though a free back-and-forth between past and present tense is a distinctive feature of folktale narratives. For right now, I've decided to keep the free use of past and present tense, but that's the kind of thing that I'll keep on pondering. For the rhythm, I've also decided to keep the number of syllables the same (so using the word 'scuse instead of the dictionary form excuse, etc.). But again, that's something I'll keep on pondering. My goal is to make the stories easier to read and also to keep their distinctive style, which are sometimes conflicting goals. Anyway, it's going to be a fun experiment, and different from anything I've done before.


4. Collect public domain illustrations. I've already found some great illustrated editions online so that I've got illustrations for 74 of the stories so far! I also found two inexpensive used books (one was just $5 and the other was $25), both in the public domain, which are not available online at Hathi Trust or Internet Archive, so I will be scanning those to share online too; one has color illustrations and the other has wonderful black-and-white drawings. My husband knows a lot about digital scanning (he's a photographer), so I am really grateful for his help with that part of the project. I've never done my own book scanning before. I'm also keeping an eye out now for other pre-1923 used books that I can acquire on the cheap like this in order to scan and share.


5. Collect story analogues. One of the most exciting parts of this project is that the Brer Rabbit stories are connected to African AND Native American AND European storytelling traditions! A few of the stories are unique (i.e. not documented in any written folktale source, although of course written records cover just a tiny part of the oral tradition), but most of the stories have some kind of documented parallel in either African and/or Native American and/or European folklore. The majority of the stories have African analogues as demonstrated by Florence Baer in her incredibly useful book Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales (I found a used copy of that book for just $30). There are also quite a few stories with Native American parallels thanks to stories being shared back-and-forth among African-American and Native American storytellers throughout the southeastern U.S. You can get a sense of that from Swanton's Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians: just look at all those trickster rabbits! Swanton's book contains stories from the Creek, Hitchiti, Alabama, Koasati, and Natchez peoples; these are public domain texts which I can republish at my website. For African stories, I've got lots of public domain online sources too (list here; I'll be developing a similar list of Native American public domain books online also).


So, my goal is to create a public-domain/OER Brer Rabbit Sourcebook for college-level work, and then to create similar sourcebooks that would be appropriate for high school and for middle school students also. I'm really excited about the potential here, and also really glad to have a project that is an excuse for me to read and read and read, and type and type and type if/when I need to get my mind off things, which I suspect is going to be a big need in the year to come -- I was feeling pretty frazzled at the end of the semester... but am now feeling much better after my 10 blissful days spent in the company of Brer Rabbit and all his fellow creatures. I even bought a poster for on my wall: it's a book cover from Harris's biggest book of Brer Rabbit stories, Nights with Uncle Remus: I found it at AllPosters in their barrage of holiday sale emails. :-)


Nights with Uncle Remus poster


Mobile! I also have to say that I am really happy for how the mobile view of Blogger is working to my benefit: I've been posting stories from the books in order so that you can use the mobile Blogger to read through a book story by story by story, like Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (that's the mobile view, with forward/backward buttons that mimic browsing through the stories in the order they appear in the book): The Tar-Baby. So when I am waiting in line and on the plane tomorrow (going to Austin to spend the holidays with my dad), I can just swipe my way through all those Brer Rabbit stories, whoo-hoo!


mobile view of The Tar Baby

Hi everybody! I gave myself a break at the end of semester to work on a new project (more about that in a separate post), but I rejoined the digital world today, getting caught up with Community stuff (check out the blogging challenge! Reflect and Celebrate | January 2019 Blogging Challenge)... and since we just got our end-of-semester evaluations today, I wanted to write up a post about that. Every semester, I go through the comments back from the students; I absolutely loathe the number part of the evaluation (they rank faculty against each other with percentiles, which I think is awful, even worse than ABCDF grading)... but I really value getting comments back from students.


How I Use the Comments. Admittedly, the evaluations can be kind of overwhelming since students' comments can be all over the place, so what I've been doing for a couple of years now is to read the comments and then focus in on two issues that are most important to me: grading and creativity. I do not do any grading in my classes and instead ask the students to do their own grading (more about that here), so it's important to me to know that this unusual system is okay with them. I also choose to build the courses around the students' own creative work, which is definitely not what students expect, so it's important for me to know that this is a good choice on my part. If I got feedback from students that they do not like the grading approach and/or that they do not like the creative writing, then I would redesign my classes.


But as I learn from the evaluations, semester after semester, the students report high satisfaction with the approach to the grading and they also report that the creative aspects of the classes are what they like most -- and that continued to be the case this semester. You can see the collected student comments here:






These two dimensions of the class are actually interconnected: one of the main reasons why I do not do any grading (lots of feedback, LOTS of feedback -- but no grading) is in order to free up a sense of creative experimentation. For more about promoting creativity, here's a presentation on creativity I did for Can*Innovate this fall.


Anyway, having this focus for analyzing the feedback from students every semester has been really helpful for me, and I am so grateful that Michelle Pacansky-Brock suggested to me several years ago the idea of harvesting comments from students like this as testimony to the un-grading approach. Because that was so successful, I decided to start doing the comments about creativity also. 


Cool Option at OU! And here's something really cool that is available at my school (University of Oklahoma) because of our online evaluation system: if I ever want to add another search term to analyze every semester, the evaluation system we use allows me to get a PDF file that contains ALL the student comments for ALL the courses I've taught since back in 2010, which is when our evaluation system went online. It's a trick you can use with the dropdown menu. The default display is for the current semester only, but if you scroll all the way up to the top of the dropdown you will see "all semesters" and then you can click on "Export to PDF" to get a total compendium of all courses for all semesters since Fall 2010:

screenshot of dropdown menu


In my case, it generates a PDF that is 203 pages long! The PDF contains all the evaluations from all the courses for the past 19 semesters. So, a gigantic report like that is too long to read (although I guess you could read it... that would be a weird experience, ha ha), but it is perfect for searching on a text string. 


screenshot of evaluation PDF


You can use that same trick to get all courses for a single semester as a single PDF also. That's what I now do each semester: I generate the PDF for the current semester, use Control-A to select all, and then copy into a text document. Then, I search on grad* and creat* to find the new comments on grading and creativity which I copy-and-paste into my ongoing collections.


So, if you are starting a collection from scratch, you can use the "all semesters" option to get going, and then just update your collection each semester with new comments, getting a picture over time of the topics that are important to you as a teacher. I really hate the numbers (and, yes, ugh, the number charts are in the PDF also), but the student comments are the most important information I have for strategizing about course design, and I really appreciate how easy it is for me to get a searchable text of those student comments in order to look for patterns in the feedback from semester to semester.


Happy End-of-Semester, everybody!!!



cat looking at computer

Look for patterns in the feedback.

Microassignments: each week of my class students have a set of 6 core assignments plus up to 8 different kinds of extra credit assignments they can complete (here's what a week looks like). Each assignment is worth 2 or 4 points depending on whether it is something quick (maybe 10-15 minutes) or something that takes more time (maybe 30-60 minutes). I ask students to spend appx. 5-6 hours per week on the class, which is the equivalent of 3 classroom hours plus 2-3 hours outside the classroom; the difference is that we have no classroom time since I teach fully online, so all the time that the students spend doing work for the class is active work: read, writing, interacting with each other. There are 30 points every week over a semester of 15 weeks. Students can decide whether they want to complete points for an A, B, or a C (here's how I explain that to them), but I don't get into any of that; I have literally no idea how many students in my class right now are headed for an A or B or C; the students record their points in the Gradebook themselves (here's how that works). My only goal is that everybody should pass the class with at least a grade of C, so that is the only thing I track, and in this blog post I want to show how easy it is for me to do that using a simple spreadsheet.


So, on Monday afternoon, after each week is over, I go into the Canvas Gradebook and sort the total points from low to high. I manually transcribe the names and points of any student who has less than a passing grade (70%) for each of the three classes that I teach based on the total points so far. So, for example, last Monday was the end of Week 13. There were 390 points possible thus far, so I recorded the name and points of any student with fewer than 273 points. It takes literally just a couple of minutes to copy out the names and points, and then I paste that into my spreadsheet. You can see the result here; this shows all the students who were failing the class at any point during the semester, with their points in the weeks column, plus one column that tracks automatically how many weeks they were failing. That's literally all the data I need in a single screenshot to show how I measure course progress. The completely steady schedule plus the fine-grained microassignments make this a reliable set of measures. As you can see, some very stable patterns emerge here:


spreadsheet screenshot


Here's what I see in that data:


Number of students failing. This is the total number of students who, in that given week (column) did not have a passing grade. As you can see, there is a large group of students there at the end of Week 2; a total of 16 students. These are the students who didn't understand at first that they really have to do work for the class every week. They slacked off in Week 2, and they could see immediately the results: not good! Of those students who were failing at the end of Week 2, 6 of them got on track and basically did not have any more serious trouble. Then the total number of students who were failing was pretty steady (between 8 and 11 students) every week up until Week 12. At that point, when they could see the end of the semester approaching, a few students really got their act together, and now I am down to just 5 students who are in real danger of not passing. That's out of a total of 90 students.


Failing weeks per student. This is another way to look at that same data in terms of the number of weeks in which students were failing the class. There is a group of 9 students that just spent 1 or 2 weeks in the danger zone, and of that group only 1 of them is in real danger now (they only recently started having trouble with the class). There are 2 students who spent 5 or 6 weeks in the danger zone, but they both pulled themselves out of trouble by Week 8 and did not have any trouble for the rest of the semester. Then there is the group of 8 students who have been in trouble for more than 10 weeks, and 4 of those students find themselves still in danger of failing now in the last few days of the semester.


These are the only students that I communicate with about their class progress. I send various kinds of assignment-based reminders to the class, especially at the start of the semester when people are developing their class routines, but the only students I communicate with about their overall course progress are the students who show up here on this spreadsheet, the students who are not currently passing. Every Monday after I transcribe the points to the spreadsheet, I send an email to the students who is failing. Sometimes it's a generic email that I send to the students BCC, but sometimes it's an email to the individual student. As I get to know more about them and the problems they are facing (lack of time, procrastination, personal troubles, etc. etc. -- each student's story is different), I can try to use what I know to write useful and encouraging emails that are forward-focused on what they can do to get on track for the class.


Note that this is just a small percentage of my students overall in the class. There are 90 students total, so that is fewer than 20% of the students who even appear here on the spreadsheet at any time, and fewer than 10% who have been seriously struggling. I'm still optimistic that all of them will pass, which is my goal for the semester. Last semester everybody passed, so that was a good semester for me. I'll post an update here on Friday when I see how this semester turns out. 


UPDATE: WHOO-HOO! EVERYBODY PASSED! That makes me very happy. I also wrote up a post about end-of-semester evaluation comments from the students, including comments re: grading, here: 

End-of-Semester Evals: Grading and Creativity 

So, this morning I finished up the final assignments to complete my class this semester as a student. A lot of the students will be doing the same this weekend; the class is set up so that if you have more or less kept up with the assignments, you can finish at the end of Week 14 and have a true Dead Week next week (last day of classes is December 7; finals start on December 10). I am sooooooo happy with this experiment, and the main thing I have learned is that I should have been doing this all along!


I wrote up a Famous Last Words post when I finished the class this morning, and I included some nerdy graphs and charts in there. I was able to generate those graphics because I was using a real spreadsheet to track my progress in the class instead of the Canvas Gradebook. I wrote more about how great it was to use that spreadsheet in this earlier post:

#TotalCoLearner: Week 9. Spreadsheet Power! 


So, in literally just a minute I was able to prepare these three intriguing charts that helped me to get a sense of how my semester went in terms of my work for the class. Here they are:


My Classwork. This pie chart was a cool way to see that the classwork divided almost exactly in half between the core activities of reading and storytelling (story posts and also the semester project) and then all the other ancillary activities (interacting with other students, skills development, reflection).


pie chart of class assignments


The class is designed so that it would be more like two-thirds reading and storytelling and one-third other activities, but I actually did less reading this semester. That was my choice, and the class is set up that way so that the design accommodates student choice (more/less reading, more/less writing, more/less interaction, etc.; there is LOTS of choice). For next semester, when I take the India class, I will be doing a lot more reading; one of my goals in that class is to re-read and revise the public domain epics I created as textbooks for that class, so that will be a steady amount of reading every week all semester.


My Points. This chart shows my points per week. I did this one as a bar chart since it was easy to see how at the start of the semester I stuck to the 30-points-per-week design of the course, but then things got kind of erratic as I would get behind, then catch up, then get behind, and so on until I finished the class today. (Yeah, Week 6 is mislabeled: my typo!)


bar chart of points per week

My Blog Posts. Finally, this chart shows my blog posts. This is the most dramatic way to see the shift in the kinds of work I was doing as the semester progressed; by the end of the semester, I was focusing almost entirely on my project, and there were fewer and fewer blog posts. Overall, I had 84 blog posts though; you can see them all at my blog.


graph of number of blog posts per week


Like I said in that final blog post for the semester, this drop-off in blog posts is not a failure. It's actually a sign of success; this is how the class is supposed to work. The semester gets more and more hectic, but by front-loading at the start of the semester when both time and energy are abundant, that makes it possible to taper off as the semester comes to an end.


The Linguistics Club at my school shared a hilarious cartoon that illustrates the end-of-semester taper. My blog was not looking quite as sad as this horse at the end of the semester, ha ha, but you get the idea. I'm just glad I don't have finals ahead. Instead, I am just counting down the days to winter break... which starts on Friday at noon for me.


Happy end-of-semester, everybody!!!


picture of horse getting sketchier and sketchier