And now, a cancer update

I feel like these should be called “Iatrogenesis” updates but that wouldn’t make sense to most people.

So, the good news: I had my bloods done Wednesday. Same deal as last time: go to the Jewish, get my blood drawn, leave. Again my tumour marker is the lowest. it’s. ever. been. Tg is .5 for those who want the numbers.

The drugs are working.

Although Montreal is in no way safe from Covid right now, I learned this week that the air in our practice space is not circulated between studios (and everything is double-walled for acoustic isolation), so it is highly unlikely I would get sick from someone next door. This is where being married to a drummer comes in really handy. Since we already breathe the same air every day, it’s fine for us to go in and play together. I have cleared it with my doctor and have permission. I am also cleared for some very restricted outdoor, distanced, and ideally masked socializing. I don’t think most of my friends meet the criteria but it’s also not zero. I think our social lives will still mostly be Zoom dinners for now, with a couple exceptions.

So I will be leaving the apartment for something other than errands, starting tomorrow with going to the practice space (I’d go today but my calendar is full of stuff I have to do).

The drugs are also still working in other ways to produce side effects. My hand and foot stuff continues. Carrie and have been walking a lot (her every day, me some days) and on the longer walks my feet get quite sore. I am thinking of taking up biking again. I will try a bike soon and see if I like it before investing in a comfortable bike for myself. Hands are the same as always.

My blood pressure is well-controlled at the moment, but I am having dizziness issues. We are stopping one of the drugs to see if it makes a difference.

And then there’s the…pooping. No big updates there from previous posts, except to say I have been continuing to experiment with food and Imodium combinations, but have not found the right art or science. Between this and the rather stringent timing rules on my food consumption (nothing at all after 8:30pm, give or take), I am continuing to lose weight, which is the one side effect I can really get behind. On the phone yesterday, my oncologist said it’s fine “but I don’t want you to become a stick.”* I laughed out loud. We are still a long way from that.

Fatigue is still there and waxes and wanes. Diarrhea doesn’t help.

*said no doctor to me ever.

Multiple Choice Exam Theory: Remote Teaching Edition

(This is a revised edition of a 2012 blog post I did for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s ProfHacker column, which is now in 404 Error Heaven.)

Edit: I did a talk about this for the Faculty of Arts.

A pdf of the slide deck is here.

The “live” 10 minute presentation is here and below, and it’s followed by a good presentation about a video assignment for students (not by me).

A video of me talking about multiple choice exams. The slides aren’t great so if you can’t see them, you aren’t missing much, except for a slide of a cat in space with a synthesizer. That is a great slide.

At McGill University, as of this writing, it is allowed to have students in remote courses take timed multiple-choice exams, so long as the window is flexible.  This means you can’t have everyone take the test at the same time.  

This also means you can’t be absolutely sure that students will not seek help. This is a concern for some people. But it doesn’t have to be. “Academic integrity” can mean many different things.

From 2011-2014 I developed a system for COMS 210, a 200 student lecture course, that allowed students to seek help and collaborate while taking multiple choice exams.  My results are unscientific, but overall test averages only went up by about 3%.  I was honestly quite surprised. Student complaints about testing, and even test anxiety, seemed to drop precipitously. It required more front-end preparation, but the grading was easy and the learning experience was better.

A couple caveats are in order here: 1) students need to adjust to it and may initially really dislike it.  They have good reason to feel that way.  It looks like other multiple choice tests but it’s not, so skills that were well developed in years of standardized testing are rendered irrelevant.  

2) in past courses, multiple choice was only one axis of evaluation for the course.  Students must write and synthesize, and they are subject to pop quizzes, which they also dislike (except for a small subset that realizes a side-effect is they keep up with readings).  On the syllabus, I am completely clear about which evaluation methods are coercive (those I use to make them keep up with the reading and material) and which are creative (where they must analyze, synthesize and make ideas their own).

So, here’s my multiple choice final exam formula.

Step 1: Make it completely open-everything (book/friend/internet), but warn students that they should make a study sheet because they won’t have time to look up everything.  

The advantage of the study sheet method is it allows students to write down anything they have trouble memorizing, but it pushes them to study and synthesize before they get to the moment of the test.

I also advised them to work in groups, but not to centralize study sheet labor, as there would often be wrong answers in the “centrally made” study sheets.

To further reduce student anxiety, I renamed the exams “quizzes” and said we would drop their lowest score (out of 4 of them). Shockingly, I think the renaming made a difference.

Step 2: Rules for the test: for teaching on campus, I told them that if they came to the classroom that day, we would enforce it as a quiet space, but that they could take the exam anywhere they wanted.  Most students selected that option.  So I already know a system like what we’d have to do online can work.

Step 3: Build a unique exam for each student (sort of).  Let’s say you are giving a 50-minute exam with 40 question.  Each question will be an “objective” on a topic.  Now, you need to write four (+/-) questions for each objective.  Yes, that’s 160 questions fora. 40 question test but I follow a formula (see Step 4).  Using the exam tools in MyCourses, each student then gets a set of 40 questions in a unique order, and with a unique order of answers.  They can phone or text a friend for help, or take it with a friend, but if they get stuck their friend has to actually give them the right answer, rather than saying “the answer to #6 is C,” so there is some learning going on.

NB: I am not providing technical support on how to actually design exams in MyCourses.  Please contact TLS if the online training materials don’t work for you.

Step 4: Eliminate recognition as a factor in the test.  

Most multiple choice questions rely on recognition as the path to the right answer.  You get a question stem, and then four or five answers, one of which will be right.  Often, the right answer is something the student will recognize from the reading, while the wrong answers aren’t.  

But recognition isn’t the kind of thinking we want to test for.  We want to test if the student understands the reading.

The answer to this problem is simple: spend more time writing the wrong answers.

I’ve come up with a formula that works pretty well.  Pretty much all my multiple choice exam questions take this form:

Question stem. This is the “question” part of the question in multiple-choice lingo. The ideal question stem has more words than any of the possible answers and is clearly worded, though I do throw in a negation (“not”) from time to time.

A. Right answer

B. True statement from the same reading or a related reading, but that does not correctly answer the question

C. Argument or position author rehearsed and dismissed; or that appears in another reading that contradicts the right answer.

D. Converse of one of B or C.

From here, you’re basically set, though I often add a 5th option that is “the common sense” answer (since people bring a lot of preconceptions to media studies), or I take the opportunity to crack a dad joke.

Step 5: Give the students practice questions, and explain the system to them.  I hide nothing.  I tell them how I write the questions, why I write them the way I do, and what I expect of them.  I even have them talk about what to write on their sheets of paper.  At the beginning of each class, we would do a multiple choice question reviewing something from the last class. At the time, I used clickers, which we also used for surveys and attendance.

A few other guidelines:

Answers should be as short as possible; most of the detail should be in the question stem

Answers should be of roughly the same length

I never use “all of the above” or “none of the above”

Since we are testing on comprehension of arguments, I always attribute positions to an author (“According to Stuart Hall,”), so it is not a question about reality or what the student thinks, but what the student understands authors to me.

Exception: I will ask categorical questions, ie, “According to Terranova, which of the following 4 items would not be an example of ‘free labour’?”

Step 6 (optional):  In 2012, I had students try to write questions themselves.  Over the course of about 10 weeks, I had groups of 18 students write up and post questions on the discussion board (that follow the rules above) that pertained to readings or lectures from their assigned week.  A large number of them were pretty good, so I edited them and added them to my question bank for the final exam.  So for fall 2012, my COMS 210 students wrote about half the questions they were likely to encounter on the final.  If they were exceptionally lucky, their own question might wind up on their own exam (we used 4 different forms for the final).

Here is a link to a copy that assignment. So long as the rules about timed exams do not change between now and September, I plan on using a variation of it for my fall lecture course:

The Week in White Supremacy

Most weeks in the history of white supremacy are not good weeks, but this is a particularly bad week. Some lowlights:

In my hometown of Minneapolis, a white police officer lynches George Floyd while three other officers look on. The incident is caught on video, which is important because the initial police report does not match what happened in the video. Despite the officer’s history of violence against BIPOC people, no arrests have been made as of this writing. A peaceful protest is tear-gassed by Minneapolis police, only weeks after white protesters at the Minnesota State Capitol were not tear gassed, and armed protesters in Michigan were allowed into government buildings there.

There are now riots happening in Minneapolis. White commentators seem very concerned about property damage. White supremacists seem to be supporting the uprising, but for all the wrong reasons.

In Toronto, a black woman named Regis Korchinski-Paquet winds up dead when family members call the police for help getting her to the Centre for Mental Health and addition.

In Tallahassee Florida, police shoot and kill Tony McDade, a black trans man.

In Western Australia, a mining company wantonly destroys a 46,000 year old Indigenous cultural site.

In my town of Montreal, which is currently a global hotspot, COVID-19 infections continue to go up. The provincial government diverted federal funds destined for a local Indigenous women’s shelter. The curve has not flattened, and our emergency rooms are over capacity. Apart from long-term care facilities (which themselves have been defunded due to ageism), the most affected population in the city lives in Montreal-Nord, which is majority immigrants and people of colour. The current Quebec premiere ran for office on an anti-immigrant platform but recently said he’d consider allowing more asylum seeker in if they were willing to work in long-term care facilities.

In my corner of the academic world, it has become fashionable in some quarters to focus on black and Indigenous resurgence and agency rather than white aggression because the latter still makes white people the centre of attention. I totally get that. But the need to pay witness to the horrors and everyday violence committed as a direct result of white supremacy will not disappear until white supremacy does. It also seems resurgent right now.

COVID-19: This Time It’s Personal

As regions and municipalities start to relax their lockdowns, advice is starting to pop up about risk and decision making. It is almost entirely addressed to readers in the second-person singular. For instance, Madison physician James Stein outlined different levels of personal risk and says “I can’t make decisions for you”; The New York Times op-ed “Putting the Risk of Covid-19 in Perspective” uses the “micromort,” or one in a million chance of dying, as the way to measure Covid-19 risk.

But all of these perspectives are highly personalizing, as if risk is an individual decision. The reporting sounds like it’s from the lifestyle section, where you can decide whether you want to follow the no-knead or sourdough approach to baking bread, or whether it’s ok to still like a Michael Jackson song. Covid-19 is like none of those things in terms of risk or responsibility.

Since nobody can know if they have been infected with the virus, risk is not a personal decision. In going out, or not wearing a mask, you are making decisions to put other people at risk, both by potentially transmitting the virus, and by thereby potentially filling up emergency rooms and intensive care units (NB: Montreal’s ERs are already over capacity).

I am not arguing against going out or even some measure of harm reduction. Rather, I am arguing that if you are concerned about the virus and think that the lockdown was a good idea, the right approach in assessing risk is civic, rather than personal. How much risk should the others around you tolerate so that you can exercise the freedom of going out? How can you move about the world in such a way as to minimize risk to others? I realize that there are people who don’t care, as amply demonstrated by the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests in the U.S. I am not writing for them. I am writing for the people who care, or want to believe that they care.

All of this has a fine point for me because Quebec just announced its triage guidelines in the event that intensive care units are overrun. While there are a lot of great things about our healthcare system here compared with the U.S. system in which I grew up, it is subject to the same managerialist cost-cutting one finds elsewhere, which means that there are real limits to what the system can accommodate in a crisis.

The guidelines are shockingly ableist, and the Société québécoise de la déficience intellectuelle has launched a project to persuade the National Assembly to change them not to exclude people with disabilities. But even if that gets fixed, I am caught up in another net that is unlikely to change.

Among the people who will be triaged out of intensive care are people with “metastatic malignancies,” in other words, people with cancer that has metastasized to other organs. That’s me. Although my drugs are working well and my cancer is “well-controlled,” if ICU’s were overrun and I showed up at the hospital, even though I am technically not sick from the cancer and only from my treatments, I would be triaged out.

I am not saying I’m special here: plenty of people are told by the state that their lives don’t matter, as the police murder of George Floyd yesterday in my hometown of Minneapolis sadly demonstrates, and as the Quebec guidelines also show.

But I’m seeing a lot of people who consider themselves progressive and good-hearted starting to talk in terms of personal risk. Don’t. If we’re friends, instead of thinking about how much risk you’re willing to tolerate for yourself, consider if you’re willing to put me in mortal danger, knowing that my safety net just got a lot thinner. Then, remember that everyone you might bump up against has someone who loves them. That should be our measure for how to act in public.

And if I turn down your social invitation in the next couple weeks, or counterpropose a Zoom dinner, you’ll know why.

Instant thoughts on moving instruction online for the fall

I was very happy to read that McGill is taking instruction online in the fall. There are still some ambiguous words in the provost’s email about the student experience, on-campus seminars and learning experiences, etc.* But this is so much better than pretending everything will be the same when we know it can’t be. And it’s something approaching a science-based response to a public health crisis (an approach sorely lacking in Quebec right now).

I am very motivated to do the best I can for my students under the circumstances. Taking courses online will be a ton of work and require special consideration given that they will still be dealing the pandemic in the fall. Cathy Davidson has a great piece on the student experience that’s now a blog post, and which I highly recommend. But there are still a lot of problems to be solved. McGill has a lot of rules and regulations about what we can require of students, and those will need to change to fit the situation. This will affect how we can teach and evaluate. Students also have privacy rights in Quebec that they don’t have elsewhere, which raises questions about Zoom and other courseware taking a more prominent role in instruction.

And let’s not forget that profs will have all sorts of new access needs; not just the students. For once, profs with mobility issues won’t have to struggle to get to or around campus several times a week (McGill is the most inaccessible space I have ever worked). But now people with disabilities that affect their experience of online communication will have a host of new problems to deal with. And then there are all the profs who can’t simply set up to teach in their homes because of care work, or living arrangements, or other life circumstances.

This is absolutely the right move, but it is just the beginning.

Postscript: I forgot to mention that our department did a cool thing a couple weeks ago that others might want to do. Rather than making the fall transition an individual problem for profs, we met and made subcommittees and will try and produce templates (or at least options) so we are not all reinventing the wheel on our own. This probably only works in departments that are functional units, but I am fortunate to have that.

Post-postscript: Our dean followed up with a note suggesting that “we intend for instructors to be available when and where possible on campus, subject to public health directives.” Um, probably not while Montreal is a global hotspot in a pandemic. Unless you count “sneaking in under the cover of night to retrieve something from my office.”

Locked Down Reviews: TV, more of it.

Okay, we’re here for awhile. I’m going to start reviewing stuff. The usual caveats apply. My tastes aren’t yours, they might suck to you and certainly cannot withstand political scrutiny.

There are minor spoilers included but nothing that would ruin it for me if it was the other way around. There is a lot of pointless violence in what we watch. And then we are all like “wouldn’t it be nice to watch something with people talking” and we do that for awhile. YMMV.

The News Hour. This show is on fire. Yes, it is the least cool, least slick TV news show in the United States. Actual old people appear on air as respected authorities. Their usual unvarnished look is less varnished under quarantine. If you are unlucky enough to watch on Fridays you will have to listen to David Brooks talk for awhile. But while everyone seems to be talking about which comedians are pulling the comedy news thing off (note: one of them is not Bill Maher), the News Hour has completely raised their game. It gets repetitive if you watch it 5 days a week, but most episodes, they speak with someone on the “front lines” dealing with Covid (apologies for the war metaphor), they will have testimony from people you never heard from on the news–like actual working people, people of colour, talking about how the economic shutdown or some stupid U.S. policy is affecting them. They will explain how things actually work. Interviews are long form, and the interview questions are always good. Donald Trump loathes Yamiche Alcindor, their White House reporter, because she kicks ass. Two of their other reporters have cats that often make guest appearances on the show. Carrie has been tracking William Brangham’s cats for week. Downsides to their approach include some repetition (but not Rachel Maddow level where it seems like you’re seeing the same show night after night, and not New York Times level where it is literally the same story over and over slightly repackaged); if you get a bad interview, like any elected politician, or a republican doing talking points, it will go on forever; oh, and David Brooks is on Fridays, and he is basically the Jungian archetype for the mediocre white man who thinks he got where he is because he is more excellent than all the other people (see also: much of the rest of the New York Times editorial section). It is best to watch on time-delay so you can fast forward when necessary. We wish there was TV reporting like this in Canada. In the meantime, we’re going to try alternating them and Al-Jazeera news.

Billions. I’m so happy it’s back! A trashy melodrama where the rich and powerful (state’s attorney vs. hedge fund founder) try to outwit and outplay one another. Everything and everyone is corrupt and compromised, but extremely shiny. My code name for this show is “men smouldering at one another” because the best part of each episode is where Paul Giamatti or Damian Lewis’ characters are consumed with rage at one another/thwarted ambition and say something through gritted teeth because they cannot let their feelings out. There’s also a non-binary character played by Asia Kate Dillon who embodies the old Dungeons and Dragons alignment of lawful evil. They do not, however, smoulder. They emote more flatly, even when betrayed. Nice. If Succession is the Star Trek of trashy rich douchebaggery TV–high concept, big ensemble cast, different leads in different episodes, interleaved stories (also highly recommended)–this is the Lost in Space of douchbaggery, but much much glossier.

Lost in Space. Speaking of Lost in Space, it will not surprise you to learn that the remake is a new, darker take on the classic TV show. It got off to a rocky start (bad writing, so-so acting) by we got into it (did they get better or did we lower our standards?). I’m not normally partial to shows with a child as a main character but they really do pull it off. If there is another season, we will watch it.

The Last Ship. Speaking of Star Trek, this is Star Trek, in navy ships, for conservative Americans, with racism and God shit, and it’s pandemic-themed for the win. It aired on TNT in case that means anything. Carrie’s dad recommended it. To explain it, let me spoil the first episode for you. A U.S. navy ship goes up above the arctic circle to do some war games exercises. Oh, and they brought along a couple scientists to collect some samples for their research. They maintain radio silence. Four months later, they turn on the radio and find out, lo and behold, that their mission was actually to carry the scientists because a virus has been ravaging humanity, and in the 4 months they weren’t communicating with anyone, the world was ending. And the scientists were secretly in touch with people back home and knew everything but couldn’t tell anyone. So now they have a possible cure, there are no nation states left, and they’re, like, just one boat and people are pissed at the scientists, whom they also need in order to save the world. The acting is really wooden to start out (it briefly gets better before going to shit again), there is no chemistry to start, some of the lead women look like they’ve been starved and had plastic surgery (you’ll know who I’m talking about). But this is really a show about a group of highly competent people who believe in their mission, who “just happen” to mostly be men. If you meet someone from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Latin America and several other areas, yes, it’s quite likely that they are evil. Even the Greeks eventually get racialized to move the plot forward in a later season. Speaking of race, the cast is actually more multiracial than Star Trek, though the white people are mostly in charge. Carrie would say to me “I would like to watch my competent people now” and I would comply. Yes, we watched all five seasons. It jumps the shark somewhere in season 3. It took a long time to get through it all. #peakpandemicTV

Ozark: A money-laundering accountant/financial planner (love that little detail–it becomes relevant) appears to double-cross his drug-running employer. They must flee from Chicago to the Ozarks, where they must find a way to make it up to the drug lord before he kills them while interacting with a range of people from the area, all of whom are poor or working class white. The show is dark, everything is shot through a blue filter, and the acting is very good. It is occasionally and briefly hilarious, but the violence is really gross, so watch out. We are in season 2 right now. More for grist for the critical white person studies mill.

Designated Survivor: 60 Days. This is the Korean remake of an American show that is still on the air. In the original Kiefer Sutherland is a low ranking cabinet member who is left behind as the “designated survivor” to ensure continuity of government if there is an attack during the state of the union address which, of course, then occurs a few minutes into the first episode. Essentially, Kiefer Sutherland plays a liberal president (who somehow does not belong to a political party) while spending 3 seasons apologizing for having played Jack Bauer, and ever scene with Maggie Q is a failed attempt at an action sequence or police procedural. Yes, we have watched all of it. Yes, it is a crappy version of Madam Secretary, which was a crappy version of the West Wing, which is the shadowy Hegelian double of House of Cards (and vice-versa). So when the Korean remake of Designated Survivor was suggested to us by Netflix, we said what the hell, why not? In a way, it is better than the original. But it is really Korean, which means it’s not made for export: to my Western tastes, the episodes are painfully long, full of weird face acting and unnecessary flashbacks, and the music video sequences make less sense than they do when they are overused on American shows like Manifesto. I wrote to Michelle Cho, a friend at U of Toronto who does Korean Studies, and she confirmed that this is normal because these shows are released simultaneously on Korean TV and Netflix, and there are advertisers and conventions to satisfy. It was just. too. weird. for us. We couldn’t get through the season, despite the long-arc storyline. Rare.

Speaking of Manifest, here is an update. We kept watching, but only when we were feeling very strong, or had something else to do at the same time, like surf the web. The season ended and I still don’t know if I’m watching science fiction or some hobbit shit. Very disappointed not to get resolution on that one.

The Plot Against America: David Simon (The Wire) adapts Phillip Roth’s novel about a fascist America where Charles Lindberg becomes president. Great period settings, didactic storytelling; and it turns out that fascism is bad for the Jews.

Unorthodox. Great performances all around. It turns out that ultra-orthodox male Jews: bad for ultra-orthodox female Jews.

BONUS ROUND: Token movies

Crip Camp. Highly recommended. Is it essential U.S. disability history or inspiration porn? The Obamas produced it, so of course it’s both at once, at least according to review. Actually, they did a good job, but I don’t think disabled people can make documentaries without someone calling them inspiring, so maybe it’s not the film’s fault. It was really great to see film footage of a bunch of stuff I’ve read about in disability history. It definitely oversells the importance of the camp to the movement (except that some important people in the movement came out of the camp, and the camp was important to them), but that’s filmmaking, and memory.

Planet of the Humans: Hell no, Michael Moore. It sucks when one of your heroes disappoints you. (How many smart, successful fat people do you see on TV and in the movies? What’s that? “Something something John Goodman”? Yeah, whatever. My point is made.) Planet of the Humans is basically the highbrow version of Plandemic.

Locked down reviews: Jewish General Hospital + some good news

This morning I arose an a frankly disgusting hour (or so said by body) in order to get my blood drawn at the Jewish General Hospital at 7:30am. I wasn’t sure what to expect. JGH, which is where all my cancer treatment happens, is also one of the hospitals in Montreal designated to deal with covid-19. I figured it was a risky endeavour. Pretty much as soon as I got there, I learned how wrong I was. Coming out of the parking garage (yes, I drove–no public transit for me for awhile), I saw this sad sign by the elevators. I had planned to document the whole visit, but it went by so quickly that I didn’t get the chance.

Upon exiting the elevators on the main floor, someone checked with me regarding what my business was, asked me a couple questions about symptoms, and then gave me a mask. I then walked through the lobbies and to the elevators and rode up to the cancer centre on the 7th floor. Upon existing the elevators there was a nurse taking our temperatures and asking an interminable barrage of questions (I do not object, there were just a lot of them). Once inside, the cancer centre was as deserted as I’ve ever seen it. The bathrooms were all open (unusual!) so I washed my hands. There were people there, but just a few. The seats in the waiting area were all taped so that people wouldn’t sit too close to one another, and they were almost completely empty. I went to the blood test room, gave them my info, walked out to wait, and was called back in almost immediately for them to draw my blood. The phlebotomist sat behind a plastic screen with a hole in it for my arm. Everyone was wearing masks and gloves. I also snuck over to the scale to weigh myself; the nurse there asked if I had a chemo treatment coming up–I said no, I was just curious and she complied. Then I washed my hands again, ran into a nurse I knew and chatted for a bit from behind our masks (at a safe distance), and then I headed out and home. I was back in my apartment less than 90 minutes after I had left. It’s clear the Jewish has completely separated its functions so that I had no inkling of whatever Covid-crisis might be happening in another wing. Upon arriving home, I went and showered and put on fresh clothes. But if I’m honest, I think I am at greater risk going for walks, and I think Carrie is at greater risk buying produce or picking up my drugs. I will fearlessly go in for a blood test any time they ask.

So about that blood test: my doctor called and told me my tumour marker is the lowest it’s ever been and everything else was good. And he was happy with my blood pressures. I confirmed with him that even if the government is stupid enough to open up Montreal in a couple weeks, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m to stay home and remain socially distanced.

The diarrhea saga continues. I’ve been doing prophylactic Imodium, which works although is eventually constipating. We talked about dosages and other strategies. He’s got other options if it doesn’t work. But I’ll be taking Imodium every other day prophylactically to see if it makes a difference. He confirmed that for most of his patients, what they eat doesn’t matter so much. They just have diarrhea or they don’t. So the experiment continues on that front.

We’ll do it again in 4 weeks.

And hey, if you’re reading this on Friday the 1st, go buy some music on Bandcamp.