What makes us resilient?

What does it mean to be resilient? What does it mean to have grit? What makes us resilient, and what is the cultural value of resilience? How does an oppressed population envision a hopeful rather than a hopeless future? How does one “come back” from personal or communal tragedy? As an African Americanist, these are questions that drive my research and teaching.

For the past two years, I have been conducting research on grit–a term used in positive psychology research circles and fitness program titles and literature. My initial research was driven by my persistent work on a twice submitted NEH Enduring Questions grant application for which I was not awarded funding, unfortunately (perhaps Paul Tough is right in his argument that the secret to success is failure!). The fundamental question with which I have been grappling is: what does it really mean to be resilient? Although the question appears simple at first glance, the answers are complex. In fact, my explorations of resilience thus far have involved my reaching back over the centuries to locate the earliest source/notation/stories of resilience.


In the process of that reaching back, my readings, though initially humanities-centered, led me to new encounters with influential thinkers and writers in the fields of history, philosophy, religion, and psychology, which spawned an ah-ha moment. That moment revealed to me that if my research could lead me to reach significantly beyond my expertise as a scholar and teacher, I might be able to shape my new knowledge thoughtfully and pedagogically such that I can effectively challenge and encourage junior and senior students in a Synthesis capstone course to reach significantly beyond their expertise in their various majors. The more I considered this possibility, the more interested, hopeful and committed I became, particularly since so much of my mentoring, research and teaching focus on identity, character building and the radical gestures that convey the extent to which ordinary people have persevered thereby influencing the culture, institutions, policies, and politics of our world.


Of great concern to today’s college students are the questions of how we define, assign value to and pull off human acts of fortitude. Such considerations inform the basis of this new course and lead directly into the supplemental questions that extend from the core inquiry. In addition to asking, what makes us resilient?, I will guide the students, at a basic level, early in the semester’s course work into a historically organized exploration of the relationship between resilience and character. To that end, we will aim to find out if there is any cultural value in resilience? Other additional questions are crucially important.

How do we “come back” from personal tragedy? How does an oppressed population envision a hopeful rather than a hopeless future? How might ancient and modern thinkers and writers contribute to readers’ development of self-discovery, knowledge and good character? These big, persistent questions imply resilience as an ethically complicated category of inquiry and form a springboard from which students can trace the historical emergence of and moral discourse on mind habits that create bridges to a better future.


The texts that form the focus of the proposed course readings foreground resilience and the desire to know which are of the utmost pedagogical and social value. Motivated by my desire to fill a historical gap in my existing pedagogical approaches and African American literary scholarship and to (re)energize my teaching in order to ensure a more current sense of interest among Albright students, I find exciting the opportunity to frame the class as an enduring query while simultaneously situating humanities thinkers in explicit conversation with ancient philosophers and positive psychologists. With its quest for a documentable past, the course has the distinctive potential to challenge existing paradigms and produce new explanations that will help bridge the chasm that has often ensnared even the best of my pedagogical intentions.


In Teachers as Intellectuals, Henry Giroux argues that it is the responsibility of teachers to practice a critical pedagogy that directs student attention not only to the text but also to the process of production of cultural meaning and to the politics of the educational institution (86-107). The texts that will form the focus of the new course readings foreground resilience and the desire to know which are of the utmost pedagogical and social value. My desire to stretch myself and be stretched beyond my own disciplinary concerns and interests while simultaneously anticipating my students’ concerns is aiding me in examining carefully the critical connections between historical eras and the formation of narrative.


In my subsequent blogs, I plan to detail the structure of the course along with its readings, which I believe will enhance and strengthen the newly envisioned general studies curriculum as well as the college’s Strategic Plan both of which give high priority to greater internationalization of our campus and courses.



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Post 3: Fostering Metacognition

My main area of research is metacognition. Sometimes this is defined as “thinking about thinking” but really it is a much deeper skill. It is your ability to monitor and control your mental states. That is, to become aware of what you’re doing, what biases you might have, and how confident you are, and use that information to make better decisions.

Recently my colleagues and I showed that metacognition takes up a lot of attention and executive processing, meaning it is one of our most sophisticated abilities that takes a good bit of concentration to pull off. But, the good news is that if you practice enough you can learn to monitor yourself somewhat automatically, so that it doesn’t take much of that (exhausting) attention and effort but you can still make better decisions.

This is similar to the concept of wu wei in Taoism, which sometimes defined as “effortless action”. But, like metacognition, there is a somewhat deeper meaning. The idea is to do sophisticated mental processes in a way that is perfectly natural and without that (exhausting) attention and effort. Basically, to become such a master at something that you move it from a difficult concentrative exercise into an automatic thing that you do perfectly without worrying about.

The metaphor I often use in class is that of a dancer. A child dances, and it is perfectly natural and beautiful but not really “good”. No one would pay money to watch it, but they smile when they see it. So you send the child to dance class, where they learn the “correct” steps and choreography. But, of course, now they are horrible dancers. They move like robots or off beat because they are trying so hard. (In our terms, they are using all their mental resources on monitoring and concentrative effort, leaving little left over to actually dance). This is why many parents agonize at the thought of going to a child’s dance recital: They can see the children are learning, but they are not real dancers. Finally, after many years of practice a dancer might become a master. Now, they dance perfect choreography but it is also natural. It appears effortless, and it is, though of course a lot of effort was required to get to that point. They are childlike, but not childish. They’ve mastered the technique so thoroughly that it now “just comes natural” to them, and they can focus instead on the expression and meaning of the dance.

So, how do we teach this in class? The paradigm I’m developing for my class this summer explores metacognition in exams. I talked about it on this College Info Geek podcast that provides undergraduates with useful tips to succeed. Basically, while taking an exam, I require my students (and research subjects) to rate how confident they are in each of their answers. They do this on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being “not at all confident” and 5 being “very confident”. I’ve done some research on this, where I found that students are generally pretty good at judging how well they will do on each question, but not very good at estimating their overall grade on the exam. This rating processes helps to improve their scores, and students who want to review their exam afterwards can kind of see whether they could improve their metacognitive “calibration” (how well their estimates match reality). However, I haven’t yet explored whether it is possible to build this skill by rating and reviewing for several exams, or perhaps for several practice exams.

Thus, what I’ve been working on the past week or so involves designing a way for individual students to rate and review each exam and quickly calculate their metacognitive calibration. The main difficulty is that the calculation involves Goodman-Kruskal gamma correlations, which most (probably all) students have never done before. I’ll need to develop some instructions and lab exercises to teach them this technique – both the underlying statistics and the actual steps to calculate it using a computer program – so that they can quickly do it after each exam.

The specifics are still up in the air. I may have the class do this themselves on several of their own exams/practice exams, or I may have them recruit subjects and analyze their results for several exams to see if there is improvement. Maybe we could even have a group of seniors in my class “tutor” some struggling students for the semester and teach them this technique while tracking the results. Some of this I’ll leave up to the students.

In the end, hopefully they achieve or at least will start down the path toward wu wei. The ultimate goal would be to have them automatically – as an effortless natural process – metacognitively monitor themselves during exams and during all decisions in life. A huge literature has shown that metacognition is beneficial in education, in the business world, and in basically any endeavor that involves memory and decision making. If they achieved this, they would be true masters of life and would perfectly exemplify a liberal arts education. Even if they just start down the path it will be well worth it.

Of course, I also have to teach the class all of these concepts, including the psychology of metacognition, the underlying assumptions of Taoism and wu wei, the statistical concepts I mentioned above, and several other methodological things. Should be fun!

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Post 2: Programming is Hard

Imagine you want to add one sentence to a book. But the book is written in Chinese, which you barely understand. And this book is hidden somewhere in a library filled with Chinese books. And the library uses an organizational scheme you’ve never seen before, which is in Latin. Unfortunately you don’t read Latin, and in fact don’t even know if it goes left-to-right, right-to-left, up-to-down, or what. That is essentially the situation that I’ve been for the past few days.

The sentence itself is relatively simple, in my case adding a simple code to delay a computer program. No problem, I can Google the translation and paste it in. But how do I find the right page in the right book? Of course, no one has ever added this particular sentence to this particular book before, so there is no simple tutorial.

Step one was to stare at the computer code for about a day hoping that I would somehow recognize what I was looking for. That didn’t work. But, to extend this metaphor even more, I learned a bit about how the organizational scheme of the library (even though I didn’t have a clue what anything was).

Step two was to read up – and YouTube up – on the basics of how other people added somewhat different sentences to somewhat different books. The difficulty here was finding something similar enough to what I wanted to do. It took some searching, but I finally found something. The organizational scheme I’m using is called Unity and the library is called C# (pronounced “C sharp”).

Step three was learning how other people solved similar problems. I was trying to add a line of code to one file (i.e., one book) in C#, which would communicate to Unity that I wanted to add my delay.

I suppose I should say that I was experimenting with “augmented reality”, which I plan to use for my course. Basically, you put on a headset where you can only see two video feeds (one going into each eye). In my case, the video comes from two cameras mounted on the outside of the headset, basically in the same position as your eyes. See here for a little schematic. If all goes well, you see exactly what you would see normally – regular 3D vision that you use whenever your eyes are open – just in video form. Not really a big deal. But, unlike normal vision, you can alter things to change your perception.

In this case, I wanted to delay the visual information by a few hundred milliseconds so that, if you were to look at your hand and make a fist, you would see your fist closing just a little after you did it. Or if you clapped, you would feel it and hear the sound just before you saw your hands come together. This makes it very difficult to do coordinated things because your performance depends on constant and correct visual feedback. Messing that up can reduce your sense of self-agency, something I have explored in the auditory domain previously. This would be a great thing that an undergraduate course could use to test things like sports performance, rehabilitation from physical injuries, consciousness and cognition, empathy, and many related phenomena.

Anyway, I eventually figured out how to add my sentence. Unfortunately, it turns out that adding it broke the rest of the book. After extensive trial and error over a few days, I eventually found a work-around and was able to achieve what I wanted! In the end, it turned out that it was easier to write my own book than it was to add a sentence to another. Actually, I kind of sidestepped the programming issue completely – I’m reasonably good at programming but, like I said, not in this language – and found a solution using a combination of programs that already exist. Still, it felt great to have done something that no one has done before and something that will be helpful for my students.

The class will now be able to use delayed visual feedback, as well as a variety of other visual distortion effects that could simulate medical disorders, drug states, and even the effects of aging.

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Post 1: Learning to Learn

I am developing a course called PSY397 Advanced Lab, for the Psychology Department. The goal is to create a situation in which senior psych majors can – in small groups – design and run an experiment. This involves coming up with an idea, doing background reading, creating the actual experiment, running human subjects, analyzing data, and creating a research article and/or conference presentation to present the results. It is quite an undertaking for them.

In my case, the experiments will explore metacognition, or your ability to “think about thinking”. This involves monitoring your thoughts and using knowledge about your own mind to influence your decisions. It has been linked to self-awareness, consciousness, self-control (click here for a news story in which I briefly talk about that), understanding the emotions of others, and many other sophisticated mental processes. Many disciplines have begun to apply metacognition to their work, notably including clinical psychology and education (e.g., teaching students to learn how to learn).

I originally began testing metacognitive processes in rhesus monkeys, exploring their ability to use self-reflective information to adjust their behavior and even to report on their own actions (a phenomenon I discovered in them, called self-agency). Like us, they seem to have a reflective mind that can think in ways that, in humans, we would identify as conscious processes.

The goal of my summer project is to develop a few human paradigms that will be engaging, fun, and rigorous tools to help students learn about metacognition. One paradigm I’ve used in the past involves students tracking their confidence during college exams, a metacognitive process can help improve decision-making and identify cognitive biases. Of course, I’ll leave it to the students to decide how this could be adjusted, applied to different areas, assessed in different cultures, or “spun off” in any number of ways.

Another paradigm I’ve used and will be developing over the summer allows people to monitor their actions and experience different mental phenomena using virtual reality. One of my students at Albright, Gwen Birster ’17, recently showed me this video of people using virtual reality (or, strictly speaking, augmented reality) to simulate migraines. I will be using basically the same technology in class, and so one of my first tasks will be attempting to create something similar that allows people to put themselves inside the mind of someone who has a disorder.

But, there are many questions that I need to figure out: Should students learn to program the software and create simulations themselves? It could take a whole semester just to do that part. Should I make a few simulations (or use pre-made programs available for the Oculus Rift headset) and train them to collect physiological/psychological data? Or should I let them decide which aspects of the task they want to do? And of course, how should I go about giving lectures, demonstrations, and moderating discussions in the course so that they can make informed choices? To answer all of these questions, the obvious first step is to determine for myself what can be done in virtual reality that can directly test metacognition, empathy, self-agency, and related abilities.

I also have a variety of related technological marvels that I need to play around with, and I will try to update this blog whenever I find something exciting.

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Final Blog: Reflection of Learning Experiences

Reflection of Learning Experiences:

My original proposal for producing seven demonstration videos for FAS325 CAD I class has been successfully accomplished in regard to Summer Teaching and Learning Grant.  I am very satisfied with completion of my proposal for the Teaching and Learning Grant because I have produced seven demonstration videos that are uploaded in Moodle for the FAS325 CAD I course and documents which will assist students and colleague for their reference. Many aspects of this course (FAS325 CAD I) involve technical know-how to manipulate the program.  With practice and skill development outside of class, both students and the instructor will be able to collaborate in more meaningful and comprehensive ways.

Learning Camtasia and Kaltura webhosting software was a goal and the Teaching and Learning Grant project helped me accomplish my goals of learning the software as a learning tool and be able to use the final products of video demonstration as a teaching tool.  In addition, I like the idea of creating these learning demonstration videos with Camtasia and webhosting Kaltura, which make that possible to enable me to spend more time with students on developing the aesthetic part of design in class rather than spending class room hours explaining residual technical information. I am thrilled and excited that I am able to utilize my video demonstration videos in my class in the fall of 2015 and be able to assess to help gauge the knowledge and skills of both students and instructors. Lastly, I also want to include some of challenges to learn software in my blog so that future teaching and learning recipient wants to use these program.

Leaning Experience I: Learning editing tools

 One challenge faced is that learning new Camtasia 8 software is both invigorating and frustrating. Taking an online course for Camtasia was the first step, writing scripts to work out the layout and format, particularly the order of events to support the production of seamless videos.  The Camtasia software is very helpful and useful to edit the videos, but requires practice in order to be able to edit them professionally. Especially “zoom-n-pan tool”, not only allowing a screen to make bigger or smaller in order to deliver to students the focused information, but permitting to produce the video with a professional look.  The other tool that I particularly enjoyed is “Callouts tool” which enable to insert written information into the specific video clip in support of communication with students directly on the screen.  The last tool is “Library”, in which I indexed many clips for my tile pages and easily accessed them to bring into the track.  There was a total of over 60 hours invested in producing these videos using this software.

Leaning Experience II: Produce and share

Once the editing is done, the recording has to be saved as Media Player (PC) format that requires a few steps. First click “Produce and Share” button on top of Camtasia screen and it displays a dialogue box. Dialogue box allows picking different types of formats that are compatible with software and devices that you are working with. Media Player 4 only (up to480p) is the format that will work well with Kaltura’s Video Package for Moodle.  Select Media Player 4 only (up to480p) and click next open up to the file saving dialogue box.       The last step is to save the file.  Create the file for the final videos and it is ready to upload in Moodle by using webhosting Kaltura’s Video Package for Moodle.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to produce demonstration videos for my class with Camtasia 8 software and Kaltura webhosting program. I have also enjoyed producing documents that might help other instructors who want to utilize software that I have used for my project.  The final assessment will be conducted at the end of October.

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Progress of creating demonstration videos: Camtasia 8 & Capture Space

I am currently working on producing the demonstration videos to increase effective class time usage and the availability and ease of access to students who work at their own pace, at the most convenient times.  I have produced six videos, but not yet edited by using Camtasia 8.  Increasing competency with Camtasia software was a very exciting part of these video productions and I have realized what it can offer to students and my colleagues as an educational tool to reach out to a broad spectrum of students.  I have completed my first part, which incorporates both Camtasia 8 and Capture Space that allow me to record CAD lectures professionally and enable advanced editing of the recording, along with other tools to enhance the final product. I am spending a lot of time reviewing and revising to make sure that each step of the demonstration of the tool are clear and that all of my steps will reduce the barriers to communication with students.

Progress of using webhosting: Kaltura

Second step of the project is the finding how I can host these videos to make it available to students and other facility as a learning tool.  I was able to attend the Faculty Professional Development “Stay Digitally Engaged Summer”, offered by Albright on June 25, 2015.  It was very helpful because I was able to use the Kalture web hosting company, which allows uploading videos to Moodle that students and my colleagues can access at their leisure. Additionally, students can also submit videos and video responses through Moddle by using Kaltura software, which allows me to stay connected with students outside of class. Of course, my chief goal is not only educating students who need extra help on using CAD program outside of classroom setting at their convenience, but also I want to share my experiences about producing videos and hosting them into the Moodle with other instructors who wish to incorporate some tips from my perspective and experience.

Motivating Interest: 

Many aspects of this course involve technical know-how to manipulate the program.  With practice and skill development outside of class, both students and the instructor will be able to collaborate in more meaningful and comprehensive ways.

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Demonstration Video FAS 383 CAD 1

Description of Project: This online demonstration video series is for FAS 383 CAD I. These online demonstration videos will not replace classroom instruction and discussion; rather, they will extend learning opportunities and assessments for skills and content in a format that is accessible online. Ideally, the online demonstration videos will allow students to work at their own pace and at the most convenient times, while providing additional assessment opportunities via four (4) design projects.

What will be achieved by completing this project?
The series will replace the 4th hour rigor requirement, so that students can develop skill sets and techniques they need for design projects. In addition, these online demonstration videos will enable and allow faculty to spend more time with students on developing the aesthetic part of design with regards to product development and artistic impression in class rather than spending class room hours explaining residual technical information. Students gain an understanding in the classroom discussion and practice while they are in the classroom, although retention is often short-lived. These online demonstration videos will reinforce classroom instruction and practice and help them to work independently in a private environment.

Potential Areas of transportability to other departments or teaching endeavour: This project will result in significant teaching and learning impacts with regards to utilizing market-focused software programs common in the fashion industry. Furthermore, these online demonstration videos will guide the students in step-wise fashion, enabling the instructor to assist and reference errors and alternative approaches in a systematic manner. The opportunity to isolate and practice skills required for success in the area of study in a private, self-paced process with immediate feedback will positively impact students. In addition, faculty can adjust course plans according to the assessment provided by the demonstration videos, making the course more productive for students. Finally, online demonstration videos will be available in the future for both students and faculty. These online demonstration videos will be stored in Kaltora, video hosting platform provided by IT and all online demonstration videos will be accessible in Moddle.

Motivating Interest: Many aspects of this course involves technical know-how to manipulate the program.  With practice and skill development outside of class, both students and teacher will be able to collaborate in more meaningful and comprehensive ways rather than detailing the technical protocols necessary.

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