Assignments

Adventures in Online Teaching (and Condensed Teaching and Teaching Something You Haven’t Taught in a Really Long Time)

Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class this summer. As a grad student, I was super excited about the possibility of not having to live the #gradstudentsummerstruggle again. As someone who loves teaching, I also was excited about the prospect of teaching a summer course, which is something I hadn’t done before. So, of course, I accepted.

Because many of the typical summer offerings are Composition classes, I’d expected to be slotted into one of those courses. However, I was assigned to teach Introduction to Fiction. Now if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I primarily research television, film and pop culture. But you might not know that my BA is in English Education, my MA is in English & American Literature, I previously taught at the secondary level, and I’m actually getting my PhD in an English Department (we’re a big all-encompassing English Department, but an English Department nonetheless). So I have a fair amount of familiarity with both the study and teaching of literature. However, until this summer, it’d been several years since I’d done either.

Intro to Fiction at my university is a pretty flexible course. The basic expectations of the course are that we provide opportunities for students to analyze and interpret literature and they make connections between literature and culture. Beyond that, a person could focus on whatever texts they want, whatever assignments they want, etc. I both love and hate having a lot of space to build classes because I’m the type of person who has approximately 1 million ideas that I ultimately have to whittle down. That being said, the class did come with some constraints. First, it was only six weeks, which is a pretty brutal contrast to the typical semester I’m familiar with. Second, the section I was assigned to was online. In fact, all but one of the sections of this class that my department offered this summer were online. There are a number of reasons why this occurred, but on a purely fundamental level, students were much more inclined to sign up for the online sections than they were for the in-person section.

But I’d never taught online before, and I’d heard more than a few online class horror stories (from both teachers and students). So I really wanted to make the class…not terrible. One of the first things I had to figure out was what students were going to read. Because, by the time I got the assignment, the spring semester was almost over. If I was going to expect students to get novels, I would have to sort that out pretty quickly. I knew that a lot of people had used short stories in the class, but I’ve always been the type to prefer novels to short stories (except fan fiction, but that’s its own category for me). After discussing possibilities with people who had taught the class as well as people in my department who’d taught other literature-based summer classes, I decided to go with two novels (sidebar: I initially thought I’d do three novels, and I had to pull myself back from the brink of ridiculous). The two books I chose were Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation:

 

I read both books earlier this year, and I found them very engaging reads and thought-provoking in various ways. They’re both YA, which is generally my preferred category of reading (my Master’s thesis is actually about YA), and I knew I wouldn’t likely be duplicating what students would be reading in other classes (I have read Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales so many times for classes, y’all). Also, both books feature young Black female protagonists, and if given the opportunity, I definitely wanted to share those voices. I knew there was a possibility that some people might not see them as “significant” texts. But I was confident that they had a lot to offer the class, so I let it roll.

Because I’m a nerd, I read a bunch of books and articles about online teaching in preparation for the class. This spurred me to make at least a few key decisions: (1) Have basically everything ready and uploaded on day 1, (2) Don’t give students access to everything at once, and (3) Be present, but not too present (this last one usually meant restraining myself from responding to every single discussion board post haha).

Speaking of discussion boards, within a classroom context, a lot of people hate them. I get it. As I was putting the class together, I thought about experimenting with audio and/or video submission options in lieu of discussion board posts. But I didn’t want to take on too much in the first run. So I stuck with the discussion board posts, but again, I tried to make it not terrible. Students had ten posts throughout the summer session. The prompts were identical for each post except there’d be one different question for each that was tied to that module’s lecture (the lectures themselves covered an assortment of critical lenses and elements of fiction). Beyond that, the tasks that students had to complete in every post were to (1) share their response to that module’s reading, (2) make a text-to-self, text-to-text, or text-to-world connection, and (3) compose a discussion question. And then they each had to respond to at least one discussion question per module (but the posts and the responses were due on separate days, so we could avoid the mad dash midnight posting flurries).

Honestly, the discussion board posts went really well. Students dug into the material and reflected on the messages being conveyed in fantastic ways. One other thing I did was put the students in 10-person discussion groups rather than having one giant discussion board for all forty students. I think this made the students much more inclined to really share and engage with each others’ submissions. In particular, the responses to the text-to-self/text/world portion were often illuminating. As indicated above, I didn’t really lecture on context, but the students often brought it in here, including but not limited to making connections between the texts and internment camps, the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

One thing that I realized here is that students know a lot. I mean, I’ve always known that. But I was able to see it here more concretely because I was getting individual responses from each student about their thoughts and feelings and understandings while reading these texts. I definitely know more about each student’s thoughts than I probably would know in a face-to-face class, and that’s a difference that was both welcome and not something I anticipated.

(Lest anybody think they were simply parroting each other, I’ll also note that the discussion board was set up so that they could not see each others’ posts until they posted)

The other assignments for the class, bearing in mind the condensed nature, were 5 quizzes and a final project. I’m often somewhat ambivalent about the value of quizzes, but I wanted to offer something that wasn’t discussion board posts that would allow me to check in on student comprehension. They did fulfill that role, but I’m not sure that I would do them again if I could think of a more impactful way to accomplish the same goals.

The final project is probably one of my favorite things I’ve done in a class thus far. Students had three options: (1) a traditional analytical essay applying one of the critical lenses to one of the novels, (2) a creative writing remix in which students had to rewrite part of one of the novels from another character’s POV, or (3) an analytical mixtape in which students had to identify a theme in the novel and develop a playlist based on that theme (this last idea is one I got from Maia Butler). The latter two options also required explanatory components in which students shared their thought processes and made connections between the texts and their creations. To my surprise, about half of the students chose option #2. The remaining students were split almost exactly between options #1 and #3. Honestly, I expected more students to go with #1 because it was the most familiar option (as a student, I would have gone with #3 myself). I really enjoyed having this variety of assignments because I feel like the students really were able to pick something they were interested in, and it showed in the final products.

(I’m going to talk more about this final project in an upcoming post Pedagogy and American Literary Studies)

Ultimately, there was a lot that I enjoyed about this class. My students brought a willingness to really think about literature that was very much appreciated. I loved getting to read all of their thoughts, and this has spurred me more to think about more ways to encourage such sharing in face-to-face scenarios. I loved teaching those particular books, and thinking about different ways to read the books.

There were some things that I didn’t like as much. Like the thing about having everything ready at the beginning of the class is that it makes logical sense, but it doesn’t mesh well with my typical responsive teaching style in which I often tweak things as we go.  That being said, one way that I did sort of work around this was to send weekly emails in which I summarized some of the points students were making in their posts, made relevant connections, and provided useful resources outside of our course material. I also know that I thrive on my interactions with students in face-to-face classrooms. My personality comes through pretty strongly in my teaching, and it was harder to do that online. Though I did try to convey it in both lectures and the discussion board responses that I did make.

In the end, based on the final projects as well as responses on the class’ evaluations, students seemed to mostly enjoy and take a lot away from the class. There were some changes that were suggested such as making everything available to students at the start rather than having things unlocking throughout the semester (I probably wouldn’t do that because I know it would be disastrous for a lot of people), making fewer/longer modules (I probably would do that though), and adding more quizzes/fewer posts (eh, we’ll see). A fair amount said that they were now thinking about the texts they consumed differently, and they appreciated having choice for the final project, especially more creative options. For a while, when I was preparing the course, I stressed myself out a little bit trying to think about the plausibility of doing a semester’s worth of work in six weeks. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s a useful way to think about a condensed class. But I do think we achieved the learning objectives designated for the class. And as I currently work on building the face-to-face class I’m teaching this fall, I’m taking lessons I learned in teaching this summer back with me to the front of the class.

 

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New Endings and New Beginnings

For the most part, my Spring 2018 semester has ended. My students have a final paper due in a few days, but beyond that, it’s pretty much a wrap. We ended by reflecting on some of the material we’d covered throughout the semester, and we discussed how some of their feelings about writing had changed. I asked them some of the same questions that I’d asked them in the first week (What’s do you know about writing? How does writing feel?), and one thing that seemed pretty clear to me was that some of them saw a space for themselves in academic writing…perhaps for the first time.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had my students complete weekly Minute Papers throughout this semester. I found this activity to be quite useful in terms of making sure that we were all on the same page and helping me to determine where the class needed to go next. For our last class, I had them do an extended Minute Paper in which I asked them four questions:

  • Which reading/viewing, discussion, or activity impacted you the most? Why?
  • What are you most proud of having done/accomplished/achieved this semester?
  • What’s the most important thing you learned this semester?
  • How will you make use of what you learned beyond this semester?

I wanted them to respond to these questions, which I pulled from various evaluation tools I’ve seen, because they really get at some of the feedback I need in order to retool the class in the future, to effectively teach other classes, and to continue developing my own understandings about pedagogy. Though I will be receiving feedback from the departmental and university evaluations students completed (and I definitely appreciate that feedback), I often find that the ways in which those questions are worded don’t really allow for much reflection or specificity.

I won’t list out everything my students responded with here, but I do want to pull out some shared strands:

  • Peer Review!: This class really liked Peer Review. Color me shocked. It’s funny because I’ve tried so many different things over the years with respect to making Peer Review productive, and in some ways, what we did this semester was the most simple route I’ve taken. Who knew? (I think maybe this is also worked well in tandem with the general spirit of the class, which prioritized discussion and reflection).

 

  • Conferences: When I previously taught this class, we only had one writing conference in the schedule. This time, I conferenced with each student twice, and on top of that, one of their very first assignments was to come to office hours at least once within the first month of class. This worked really well in terms of allowing me to get to know them as individuals and discussing some of their individual anxieties about writing. On this final Minute Paper, one of the students wrote, “In a college this populated, it’s difficult to get one on one time with a teacher. These were super helpful because not only did you get feedback, you also got to have an in person conversation, which made the editing process easier.”

 

  • A Single Story: About a third or halfway through the semester, after we’d completed several readings and discussions about food, identity, and culture, I got a question on a Minute Paper that was something like “Do you think we can eliminate bias?” I had a lot of thoughts about that question, and I structured much of our next class session around trying to answer it. One of the things we did on that day was watch and discuss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” At the time, some of the students seemed impacted by the talk, but I’m not always sure how much this stuff sticks. However, multiple students mentioned this as the thing that impacted them the most this semester.

 

  • New Perspectives: It’s impossible to touch on every single element of food and culture in a given semester, but I really did try to introduce them to things that I thought they might not see elsewhere. One example of this is David Perry’s “Restaurants Haven’t Lived Up to the Promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” This also came multiple times as something that made an impact, and one student said, “The activity where we discussed disabled people being left out of the food culture impacted me the most. I had never really paid attention to places without access but it really does make a difference.”

 

  • The Writing Process: In some shape, form, or fashion, many students noted coming to appreciate the writing process (which I very intentionally slowed down this semester). Some wrote about seeing their skills develop through drafting and revision, some talked about procrastinating less because of the multiple steps in the process, some talked about realizing for the first time that a draft doesn’t have to be good and feeling less stressed because of that realization, and some described feeling very good about the work they turned in at the end of the process.

 

  • New Experiences: This class is primarily an analytical essay writing class, but I also had students write in some other forms, such as the memoir and the listicle, to give them different challenges and experiences. In this final Minute Paper, some students noted really appreciating that exposure. In response to the question about what they’re most proud of, one said, “Writing papers such as the food memoir and listicle that I have never done before. In high school, kids don’t get introduced to different types of writing, so I was proud of figuring out how to write these types of papers well.”

 

  • Core Principles: During the first week of class, we also watched Clint Smith III’s “The Danger of Silence.” I’d included his four Core Principles (“Read critically. Write consciously. Speak clearly. Tell your truth.”) on the syllabus, and I wanted them to understand where they came from. I tried to structure the class so that students had several opportunities grow in those areas, and we explicitly revisited the principles in the middle of the semester and at the end of the semester. Many of the comments on the final Minute Papers seemed to touch on these ideas (“I want to speak clearly and organize my thoughts as such”; “I am most proud of the progress I have made as a reader. Reading has never been my strong suit but the practice that I have had this semester made me a better reader”).

 

  • A Likable Theme/Focus: I figured a class about food might go over reasonably well, but I was kind of Trojan Horse-ing a bunch of other stuff in there, and also one of the things that I’ve seen sometimes, particularly as someone who primarily teaches Media Studies and Popular Culture, is that students can be reluctant to look beyond the surface level of pop culture artifacts. But here, a lot of them pointed to finding our investigation of things like commercials and music videos to both be fun and effective. They liked taking content that they were sometimes familiar with and breaking it down, and they liked hearing what their classmates thought about that content. And I know some of y’all really hate the word “relatable,” but…uh…they found all of this to be relatable 🙂

 

  • There are more things besides this, but wow, this post is already getting super long, so I’ll just have my last point here be my favorite comment out of all of them: “Writing doesn’t have to be grueling and adhere to strict rules. It can be so much more. I will remember this and take it with me.”

So as I said earlier in this tome, this semester is basically over, BUT that doesn’t mean I’m done with the academic life until August (hahahaha). First up, I’ll be working for the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC) again in May. This time around, I’m in charge of all things social media, and I’m really looking forward to that. In June, I start teaching a 6-week online Introduction to Fiction class (this is a whole barrel of firsts, and you can expect to see a post or two or ten on this in the coming weeks). While I’m doing these things, I’ll also be working on my dissertation as per usual (look for a post on that next week), waiting for feedback on a publication submission, and drafting job market materials. ‘Tis the academic life, eh? In all honesty, though busy, I think this actually shaping up to be a summer that’s both productive *and* fun for me, which is pretty much all I want them to be (I mean, I’m also getting paid the whole time, which…WHEW).

Adventures in Assessment

Throughout the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve taken various approaches to assessing student work. I’ve used really rigid numeric rubrics, single point rubrics, and no rubrics at all, depending on the class/assignment/my general pedagogical perspective at the time. On a somewhat related note, one thing I’ve been trying to do more of this semester is provide my students with more opportunities to steer the class in several areas, including assessment.

Here’s the truth: I hate grades. I love giving feedback, but I hate assigning letter/number grades. I have a much longer spiel about this than I want to go into in this particular post, but I think grades really do a great job of ripping the joy and appreciation out of learning. And I say this as a (mostly) reformed overachiever. I’ve worked really hard to structure my class this semester in such a way that grades are deemphasized. Instead, we’re focusing on process and feedback.

(FWIW several of my students have commented that this approach has made the class a more enjoyable experience than they’d anticipated having in First Year Writing, and I consider that to be a win)

But since I’m not able to go gradeless (yet), I still have to figure out how assess student work and assign grades. For the first writing assignment of the semester, a creative writing piece, I asked a simple assessment question that I picked up from John Warner: Is it interesting to read?

I think this was a great entry point for the semester, and it really took some of the pressure off while also avoiding that pesky hyperfocus on “correctness.”

Their first analytical essay is due this week, and when we first went over the prompt weeks ago, I told them we’d talk about assessment criteria later. What I was trying to avoid here was them writing their way into a “meets expectations.” I wanted them to build off the notion that the thing should be interesting to read, to grapple with analysis, and to buy into the process of drafting, feedback, and revision, without focusing entirely on the finish line.

This is a hard thing to make happen because the education system is not really set up for this, and even if I’m going mildly rogue, that doesn’t mean the other classes my students are taking are. I think this requires some trust, which we’ve been building since the semester started. If my students didn’t have some faith that I wouldn’t leave them hanging, I don’t think any of this would work.

At any rate, I always intended to provide them with assessment criteria when we got closer to the due date but then I wondered why **I** needed to be the one providing it at all. I didn’t get here on my own. I was inspired by this post and this post, amongst many others. See we’ve spent several weeks talking about analysis, analyzing media in class, writing together, discussing, looking at samples, etc. I think they actually know quite a lot about analysis, and rather than me saying, “This is what your essay should be,” I knew they could come up with their own criteria that would more than fit the bill.

So this is what we did (pulling primarily from that second post): I, first, asked them to tell me what the class is asking them to learn. Then, I asked them what they needed to do in the class to meet those goals. I took notes on a projected Google doc at both of these steps. Once we’d discussed both, I asked them what their essays needed to do and/or look like in order to meet the goals. Here’s what they said the essay should do:

  • Should have analysis that goes beyond surface level/explicit meaning
  • Essay should have some sense of structure
  • Should demonstrate awareness of how primary source can influence consumers
  • Should be aware of context in such a way that analysis makes sense
  • Should have a short summary/description of artifact
  • Good, clear transitions
  • Should demonstrate audience awareness
  • Should indicate having gone through various revisions

I told them that they’d identified the criteria that I’d be using to assess their essays. And I had them each vote for the top three points that they think are most important for this analytical essay. The order above reflects those preferences. Indeed, the top three points got many more votes the other points.

Here’s the thing: I think the criteria I would have given would have been somewhat similar to what they came up with here. But I think it’s important that this didn’t come from me. This is what they think strong analysis should look like based on the work we’ve done together throughout the first half of the semester, and this is what they’re choosing to hold themselves accountable for.

My favorite part? They didn’t say a thing about grammar or spelling or punctuation, which is where students often get hung up in the quest for “correct.” I love that they’re paying more attention to the ideas and how those ideas get conveyed.

This particular choice doesn’t solve all of my grading woes (though it’s also not the only thing I’m trying this semester 😉 ), but I like it thus far. I wouldn’t necessarily do it for every assignment, but I definitely see it having space in my ongoing pedagogical toolkit.

About Classroom Participation…

I have a problem with classroom participation.

Well.

I have a problem with grading classroom participation.

This problem has been brewing for a long time. Even back when I was in undergrad, I found it a bit strange to be graded on participation. And once I began teaching (first at the secondary level and then the college level), I incorporated participation into the assessment because it was something I believed I was supposed to do, not because it was something I actually knew I wanted to do.

To me, it’s always seemed bit fuzzy (even when you provide specific things you’re looking for), and I have a hard time making it fit in my head next to student work when I think about the learning that takes place in the classroom. I also know that my perception of what “good” participation looks like is somewhat colored by my own behavior as a student as well as the types of student behaviors typically privileged by the educational system.

(Sup, fellow extroverts?)

In the past few semesters, I’ve actively started to pull away from more traditional methods of assessing participation. Last fall, I had my students complete participation logs, which I mostly liked because they allowed students to take the opportunity to be thoughtful about their experiences. And they gave me an insight into things I may not have recognized. In the spring semester of this year, I didn’t grade participation at all, and in case anybody is wonder, I didn’t notice any discernible difference in how much students participated (lol) in the class.

This semester, I taught Intro to Film, which is a big lecture class here. The lecture meets twice a week, and then recitations (discussion sections) are taught by grad students on Fridays. This was my second time teaching the class, and one of the things I knew going in this time is that it can be quite difficult to foster community when you only see each other for 55 minutes per week. And without that community foundation, typically important elements that folks designate to participation, like discussion, become even more challenging.

The course’s professor included participation in the assessment, and so I spent some time thinking about what I could do with that this semester. Of course, I’m always observing them throughout the class, but I wanted to hear more from them about participation. But I knew that our recitation meetings wouldn’t necessarily afford the same level of detail as what students pulled out in the course in which I used that method. So this time, I decided I’d just have students complete a relatively simple form at the end of the semester that would give me a sense of how they understand “participation” and how they saw themselves participating in the class. Here’s what I asked them to respond to:

  1. Describe what “participation” means to you within the context of the class.
  2. Describe how you participated in lecture throughout the course of the semester.
  3. Describe how you participated in recitation throughout the semester.
  4. Describe ways that you think you could have participated more effectively in the course throughout the semester.
  5. Are there any other factors or details related to your ability to participate in the class that you think I should know?
  6. If you were responsible for giving yourself a letter grade for your participation in this course, what would it be and why?

While these produced an assortment of interesting responses, I think the most useful to me came in response to #1 and #5. Regardless of what we might perceive, students know what participation is generally expected to look like. Responses to #1 included points such as, read/watch the material before class, answer questions, pay attention (which is a whole other soapbox I have, but I’ll leave that one for another day), complete work on time, etc. I don’t think any of these responses are bad, but when I read them together, they make me feel pretty…blah.

Now there were some responses to that question that I thought hit on really important points like developing your understanding, knowing that your answer doesn’t have to be “good” or “correct,” being generous while listening to other people sharing, and thinking critically. Some of these items are not the easiest to measure, but if I think about why participation might be important, these are things I care more about.

For #5, students often to took the opportunity to explain why they might not have participated much (in the conventional sense). Many students expressed shyness and anxiety, some noted depression, some pointed out that sometimes they literally just didn’t have anything to say, some felt more inclined to discuss material they felt strongly connected to, some felt that my choice to ask specific questions made them more likely to speak up, and some noted that since this was their first film class, they would much rather listen to what others had to say.

There’s a lot going on here, but my key takeaway is that there are several factors intersecting with a student’s participation. And if participation doesn’t look the way you think it should, maybe it’d be worthwhile to think about some of those factors and ways to work with them. I didn’t do a midterm eval for this class (that’s my bad), but if I did, I think I could have addressed some of these issues earlier.

But do you want to know what at least half of the students noted as something that made them more likely to participate?

Small group work.

I think a lot of us already believed this, but it was nice to hear it from the students. I often incorporate such work into my teaching, and I will continue to do so going forward.

(even when I fully stop grading participation :D)

Step By Step

One of the readings my students had to complete this week was the introduction to Tonny Krijnen and Sofie Van Bauwel’s Gender and Media: Representing, Producing, Consuming. I assigned this reading served a couple different purposes. For one thing, given that I’m teaching a documentary class, I want them to be thinking about how media works, how it influences culture and is influenced by culture, etc. Additionally, one of the questions that we’re grappling with this semester is “What does it mean to represent?” In any media class that I’m teaching, this would always be a point of interest, but for this particular class, given the documentary’s general presumed status as “authentic,” “true,” and “real,” it’s a question that I want them to really take into consideration.

The other purpose that I had in choosing this reading is also tied to the issue of representation. My section of this course is focused on Crime, Justice, and Power, and as such, the documentaries that we’re viewing are often dealing with pretty heavy issues. As we’re grappling with those issues, I want them to consider who and/or what is being represented, how they’re being represented, what affects those representations, etc. Gender is one of the many spheres in which we’ll be considering these matters. And thus, this reading, which is only about 10 pages long, provided them with an accessible crash course in the theory and history of gender studies with a few relevant examples.

I’m always a little bit wary of how things like this are going to go over, especially in classes that aren’t marked as like CLASS ABOUT GENDER. Despite the trepidation, I’ve been lucky enough to have positive results in most cases, and this time was one of those positive experiences. Along with completing the reading, students also had to turn in what I call “Critical Reading Responses.” They only have to do this for a handful of readings in this class (from a student perspective, I always found it weary and tedious when we had to write a response paper for every single reading, and I do not wish to inflict that upon myself or my students). I pulled from several different response essay assignments that I saw on the internet in creating the assignment. The gist is that they’re reading closely and carefully and then writing a responses that clearly demonstrates their understanding of the text and ability to analyze while including some key components, such as a quote that stood out to them, a new concept that they were introduced to in the reading, etc.

Thus far, they’ve only done this assignment once, so I can’t speak to how well it will always work, but I was really pleased by what they turned in for this reading. They conveyed a willingness to engage with the material in ways that might not always be expected. Additionally, they were very forthcoming about their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the material. Despite what folks might think about the internet making all of these topics common knowledge, I found that many of my students expressed unfamiliarity with the ideas that gender and sex are different, that gender is a continuum, that gender is performative, etc. But even though they were unfamiliar, they were open to learning and intrigued by the prospects. And even when they sometimes expressed disagreement with certain points from the reading, they were still pretty open to the possibilities.

Now I pretty much always think my students are the best students in the world because I’m highkey biased, but I don’t think they’re unicorns. I think that we can bring new and important concepts to students and have them be received. I also think that sometimes these things will fall flat, and we have to know that, to quote Pink, “Sometimes it be’s like that” (shout out to the year 2000). But we keep trying because it’s important, and I don’t think there’s been a day in recent memory that crystallized that more clearly for me than today. As Maya Angelou would advise, I know better, so I’m doing better, and I hope you all are too ✌🏾

(P.S. If you read the title of this entry, and started singing the Step by Step theme song, we should probably be best friends)