Working hard

18 May 2020

I’ve had a number of conversations with students in the past few days about “working hard”. Students have lamented that as a result of the coronavirus, they are often unable to produce the quality of work they expect from themselves. Students further believe that their professors will think they’re not working hard if they don’t submit work of their usual caliber. One student in particular told me that it’s not so much about the work he’s producing, or his reputation, but rather he’s concerned with reciprocity. Specifically, his professors are working hard to transition courses to virtual delivery, to check-in on everyone, to monitor Zoom etc and if he doesn’t do his best quality work, he’s not reciprocating the hard work his professors are putting in.

While I can’t say that I wouldn’t have used that logic myself if this had happened while I was in college, I know that 13 years removed from my undergraduate days, this doesn’t sit well. What I’ve come to realize and have shared with several students at this point is that “working hard” means something different now than it used to.

The student who used to live in the dorms and take meals in campus dining didn’t have to worry about cooking and cleaning up after meals. They can work hard on school activities. But now maybe that same student has moved home, where there are several younger siblings and at least one parent is an essential worker. Now that student is taking on tasks like cooking and cleaning, and maybe helping siblings with their virtual schoolwork. That’s hard work. And it takes time. Just because professors don’t see that in what students submit, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize that it’s happening.

Other students’ jobs increased hours in response to COVID-19. I have students who work in banks, in hospitals, in grocery stores, as emergency responders. These students are working hard, even if they don’t have as much time for their schoolwork.

Dear students, I know what you’re capable of. And I know that you’re working hard. Even if your “hard work” looks different now than it did last semester, or even in January or February of this year, I still know you’re working hard.

Zoom Part II: (in)Accessibility

11 May 2020

Part I of this two-part series on Zoom addressed issues of multi-tasking, engagement, and screen time. Here I’m focusing on (in)accessibility.

Zoom is an audiocentric platform. It uses sound (which its algorithm assumes to be linguistic) to determine whose video to highlight (that’s useful when sign languages are involved). You can circumvent that system by pinning a particular video. This is useful if one is accessing a meeting through sign language interpreters. Talking heads don’t need to be big because the linguistic information isn’t in the video, but sign language videos do need to be appropriately sized to be able to take in the information.

The trouble is if the meeting host uses the spotlight feature to highlight someone specific in the meeting, participants lose the ability to pin some other video. This has meant minutes (which feel like hours) of frustration during meetings or other presentations as I try to send messages to the people running the meeting to get them to turn off the spotlight feature, meanwhile they’re typically just saying “pin the video you want” and me trying to tell them, I can’t; that option isn’t available.

Pro-tip: If your meeting has interpreters, do not use the spotlight function for people speaking as it makes the meeting inaccessible. If you must use the spotlight feature, spotlight the interpreter.

Pinning and spotlighting have more complex implications for accessibility. In a recent Zoom conference webinar I attended, I requested that the interpreter be spotlighted for accessibility purposes. Later, the speaker was spotlighted because “attendees preferred to see him” (accessibility be damned).

This conference webinar was recorded, but the (I hope) unintended consequence of that is that the interpreter was only visible for five minutes in the recording of that 2 hours presentation, only the five minutes where they were spotlighted. To make matters worse, even that five minutes isn’t truly accessible because the interpreter is tiny. An interpreter of that size, even in a full-screen mode, would be too difficult to see, too mentally draining to retain information from.

So while the conference boasted of its accessibility features, it really wasn’t.

Size of the interpreter in the webinar recording
Final Tweet in a series about the webinar noting issues with accessibility

What do you do? If you’re running a meeting and have participants who access Zoom in a specific way, ask them what works best. If you’re planning to record a meeting or webinar, practice, practice, practice to make sure that all of the accessibility features you’ve set up for the lice event transfer over to the recording. And for crying out loud, make sure the interpreter is more than thumbnail size! (Seriously, the interpreter should be as big as the slides.) For more on Zoom access, see this guide created by deaf people. Still have questions? Contact them at the email listed on their website (link above).


Work From Home Ergonomics

5 May 2020

I’ve been alluding to this post for a while. Today I want to talk ergonomics. This is something to keep in mind all the time but especially now that many of us are working from home, we may not have all of our favorite furniture to help us do this comfortably and in a way that’s safe for our bodies.

Drawing from my background in kinesiology (before I became a linguist), I’ll walk you through some helpful stretches, posture tips, and I’ll explain the Pomodoro Method.

Finger and arm pulls are traction stretches designed to help release the fascia that surrounds muscle tissue. Fascia requires long, low-intensity stretches that don’t feel like much at first, but after holding for several minutes can be really effective. For finger pulls, group the fingers (I generally do the pinky and ring finger as a group and then the index and middle fingers individually) and pull gently for about two minutes. Arm pulls will be done much the same way. You can do them yourself or if you’re stuck at home with someone else, you can ask them to help you from the standing position, or you can lie down so the rest of your body can fully relax while your arm is being released.

Especially for all the typing many of us are doing, stretches for wrist and finger extensors and flexors are vital. For this you can do the so-called “prayer stretch” and “reverse prayer stretch” or variations on them as pictured.

At your workstation, you want to make sure your chair has appropriate support. That might mean lumbar support, a tailbone/sacrum cushion, a stool to place under your feet, or something else that works for you. You want your legs bent to about 90 degrees. If you’re standing, avoid locking your knees. For either sitting or standing, your elbows should also bend at about 90 degrees and your computer monitor should be about arms length away from your eyes.

The Pomodoro Method is used to break up large chunks of time and increase productivity. You work in bursts of predetermined length and at the end, you get up, stretch, grab some water, throw the ball for the dog, or whatever. Maybe when you come back to work, you change positions. Play around with segments that work for you. Common methods are work 25, rest for 5 or work for 45, rest for 15.

Thoughtful setup, regular stretching and regular breaks help your body stay happy and healthy and ready to work, without causing pain. Happy working!

Zoom Part I: Multi-tasking, engagement, and screen time

29 April 2020

There are quite a few articles out there about how Zoom seems to be more tiring than other meetings (here’s a non-representative sample of such articles). Zoom fatigue memes are also en vogue now (and many seem to feature cats!) Most of these articles boil down to technical issues and how that can cause anxiety on a call, having to “perform” for meetings that have video, and how even social calls don’t feel relaxing because we’re all “zoomed out” from work. But the focus of this blog post is about the relationship between multitasking, meeting engagement, and overall screen time.

Recently I was on a Zoom call for work -- a department meeting. Like so many well thought out Zoom plans, this one didn’t go exactly as planned. (What I’ve been saying over and over lately is “Every Zoom is a learning experience” or something along those lines. Because it is.)

In this particular meeting, its leader had planned to have a big meeting for a short time, then break out into several discussions; participants could choose a particular topic to discuss with a smaller group. These were not the official Zoom breakout rooms. The plan was to enter separate meetings for a discussion then rejoin the big meeting. But joining the smaller meetings didn’t go as planned. Almost immediately after leaving the big meeting, I was inundated with texts from interpreters trying to figure out where I was, which room to go to, issues getting in the room, etc. So I was doubling up on screen time, simultaneously watching my computer (and extra monitor) to repeatedly try to join various meetings (to see which would work) and looking at my phone (to communicate with interpreters). I gotta say, this was exhausting!

What’s worse, after we all got back to the main meeting, I found it difficult to concentrate. I was already zoomed out. Instead of maybe walking away for several minutes to rest my eyes from the screen, I started mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and Twitter. But nothing held my attention. Nothing could.

This kind of mindless scrolling, I’ve noticed, has really increased. It’s my spontaneous go-to if I lose concentration for even a moment. I can’t help but wonder if this Zoom-induced attention deficit.

Most of the articles (like this one) say one way to reduce Zoom fatigue is to say no to social engagements on Zoom. This is less of an option for work-related Zooms, so I’m not sure of a good solution (but I’m certainly open to ideas and also make sure that any meeting that could be an email is actually an email, like now more than ever).

For now, I’m finding it difficult to be engaged in meetings. The nature of the meetings and making sure interpreters are present and in the same room I am (and can get into the room I’m in) requires multitasking. But even when there are no pressing tech issues, I can’t seem to stop multitasking.

Who knows when we’ll be back to in-person meetings, but I sure hope I’m able to focus.

Leading Class Discussions in the Age of COVID-19

20 April 2020

There are lots of useful resources about leading effective class discussions (like this one from Duke University and this one from Stanford). But how do you manage class discussions in the age of COVID-19? There’s probably lots of answers to this question but I want to share about my recent experience with Slack.

I had planned to use Canvas for all discussion forums once we went virtual. For lots of reasons, I decided not to have live Zoom video sessions. If you have questions about why, please message me but I’m not going to go into that here. The problem was that I had lined up two guest speakers, neither of whom are local, to talk to my class on two separate occasions. The plan was for them to join our class by video and their video would be projected on the classroom screen so students could see them. I’d booked Deaf Interpreters to copy the questions/comments students had to the “guest” speaker. When we switched to virtual learning, I needed another way for students to engage with our guests; hopefully now they’d be able to do so directly (instead of with an interpreter relaying their comments). Canvas wouldn’t work because the guests are outside CSUS -- I couldn’t invite them to join our Canvas course.

I’d heard of instructors using Twitter for classes before so I took to... Twitter to ask people on Twitter about using...you guessed it: Twitter for classes.

My original tweet asking about other professors who have used Twitter for class discussions.
One of the responses I received from someone who does use Twitter for class discussions.
A word of caution about the pubic nature of Twitter and one of the reasons I wanted to look for an option that would keep student posts private. This person also was the one to suggest an invite-only Slack channel.

Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney, in the Twitter thread, suggested using Slack instead because it can be made private, whereas Twitter is a (mostly) public forum (though Aimee Whyte offered some suggestions for how to privatize Twitter). I liked that idea so decided to try it out. I still only planned to use Slack for the days with guests. But after our first session on Slack, students started indicating they preferred that to Canvas. I even did a poll to ask what students would prefer going forward and Slack was the overwhelming favorite.

Slack message from a student that sparked the poll to determine whether to use Slack or Canvas for the rest of the semester.
Poll results: The overwhelming majority of class prefers Slack.

A few key reasons Slack seems to be a friendlier platform:

  1. You can see when other people are typing

  2. You can tag specific people with the @ symbol

  3. You can react to posts with various emojis

  4. You can quote messages (so if you type an answer to a question and then later someone else asks the same one, you can just quote your original reply)

  5. You can answer in a thread to keep topics organized


I still have a lot to learn about Slack but at least for now, it is doing what we need. Students are engaging, they’re demonstrating that they understand concepts we’re covering, and they’re making connections between what we’re covering and other things they’ve learned about.

The wonders of Camtasia

2 April 2020

Camtasia is an amazing tool I first learned about in my first year at CSUS. It allows you to record yourself and your screen simultaneously. This is especially useful in the age of COVID-19, when I have even more need than usual to pre-record my video lectures.

Getting the hang of Camtasia has been a process. I first used it to provide feedback in ASL. This involved producing videos with captions because it was for ASL I students (here’s another example for ASL III students). While it was important to provide ASL feedback in the target language, I also wanted to make sure they had access to all of the information. It’s not so easy to create captions in Camtasia (or at least not from my experience). I later learned that if I wanted to caption a video, It was easier to use YouTube, which has the added advantage of being able to turn off the captions. Just this week I tried creating a caption file in ELAN and exporting it to YouTube, which I found to be much easier than typing the captions directly into YouTube.

But you can also see that I hadn’t quite figured out how to re-size the slide and video portions. Now I know that in addition to re-sizing, there’s also a crop feature so if there’s extra space to the sides of my signing space, I can delete it, allowing me to make the video portion bigger, which will make it easier to see.

Next I started using Camtasia for teaching hybrid ASL classes (levels 3 and 4). I decided to make vocabulary videos for students to study on their own. When they got to class, they’d be ready to apply the vocabulary to narrative comprehension, dialogue, and later narrative production. Here are a few examples: Unit 14, Unit 19, Unit 23.

That same year, I also developed several tutorials describing how to use various types of software (like this video explaining Photo Booth)

Since then, I’ve moved from teaching ASL to mostly teaching upper-division content courses like Deaf History, Deaf Culture, and Linguistics.

There’s so much you can do with Camtasia that I don’t use. For example, you can embed quiz questions in a video. This not only provides feedback about whether students are understanding what’s being taught but also to gauge how they’re engaging with the video. Specifically, are they watching the whole thing? YouTube provides some video analytics but Camtasia tells you more about how the students are engaging with the video. That information can be used to adjust classes/videos down the line.

Maybe in the future I’ll learn more about all the wonders of Camtasia but for now, I’m happy with what I can do. If you are interested in learning more about Camtasia, I’d love to help you get going!

I know what 'flood' means

24 March 2020

Top and bottom comparison images. The bottom shows the normal view of the golf course near my old home. The top shows the green just peeking out from under flood waters.

My first blog post is about "aha" moments with terms I thought I understood. Until I realized I didn't. This based on a Twitter thread available here. I'm from New Mexico. A desert where it doesn't rain often. It rains sporadically in the summer, sometimes quite hard, but in short bursts. Floods aren't something I'd experienced or given much thought to. When I moved to Sacramento about four years ago, I still had no real reason to consider the concept of floods. But then in late 2016 and early 2017, a time I call "the great rains of 2016 and 2017", it rained constantly for days and weeks on end. I saw actual floods. The trail near my home where I would walk/bike to and from campus suddenly looked different. Where I used to see a split trail -- a raised levee and a lower trail --, I saw only water. Beyond that where I knew there was a golf course, I still saw only flowing water. Finally I understood what "flood" meant, though I thought I knew before that.

Trail and golf course with flood waters visible.
View of bike trail and golf course with flood waters visible.
a bike ramp from the main trail up to the levee. The water goes up the ramp about half way.
A bike ramp from the main trail up to the levee. The water goes up the ramp about half way.

A similar realization struck me with the current COVID-19 pandemic. I knew what "pandemic" meant, in theory. Plus I'm a linguist so even if I didn't, I could figure out the meaning of the individual parts and come up with something. But that "knowledge" didn't prepare me for the current global situation we're facing. It's mind boggling to me that I'm seeing posts from all over the world in reaction to this crisis. People are worried about whether they'll still have a job. Teaching has been moved online in many cases. Everyone's talking about it. There are news updates daily. So while the evidence is before me, just as it was with the "great rains of 2016 and 2017", it's still hard to fully comprehend what's happening in the world today.