Discussion

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).

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Local Flavor

TIL none of my students have seen the movie Soul Food 😳
Ahmad from the movie Soul Food

Ahmad is displeased by this revelation.

*more on that momentarily*

For today’s class, we had a reading about how Black chefs have shaped American cuisine throughout history and a reading about the similarities and differences between “Southern Food” and “Soul Food” and the power dynamics between those distinctions.

After going over some of the key details in the readings, I pulled up Yelp searches I’d done for the highest rated restaurants in Columbus categorized as “Southern Food” and the highest rated restaurants categorized as “Soul Food.” I pointed out how there was some overlap, but most of the restaurants at the top of the list for the former have White owners and a lot of the ones at the top of the list for the latter have Black owners.

I asked them if they could see any other differences between the lists, and this is what they noticed:
-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” tended to have images that showed more “stylish” or “upscale” plating
-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” tended to be more expensive
-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” tended to have many more reviews

-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” were more centrally located within the city, whereas restaurants labeled as “Soul Food” were pushed out to the perimeter

And we talked briefly about what all of this might mean: about stereotyping, about power, about who can afford rent where, about segregation in Columbus, etc.

What I’m finding with this particular theme is that it’s really easy to make connections to our local community (for example, in Monday’s class, we analyzed images from a local coffee shop’s website as part of a discussion about the ethics of craft culture). And I think that *maybe* these things might stick in their minds better (time will tell) than more abstract or distant examples. One of the things I’m trying to do is highlight how rhetoric, analysis, and rhetorical analysis factor into more than just the essays they write for me.

Toward the end of class, we shifted to analyzing the trailer for Soul Food. Hence, the above revelation haha. Their next essay requires them to choose a food-related artifact (such as a commercial, a print ad, a movie trailer, etc) and analyze the messages its conveying. I’m a big proponent of in-class practice and modeling. I want them to see what I mean when I say analysis and to ask questions if they don’t understand something. So today, we went through some of the first steps of notetaking for analytical purposes with the trailer. We talked about what details you might look for in something you’re analyzing, how you would then identify the meanings conveyed by those details, and you would ultimately think about the significance of those meanings. I try to model my responses to them on this process. So someone might say, “I noticed x detail,” and I might ask “Ok, what do you think that means?” Or someone might say, “I think this means x,” and I might ask, “Ok, why is that important?”

Ideally, they’ll keep asking questions as well.

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)

A-Ha

Do you trick your students?

I’m not referring to magic tricks. Although being able to wave a wand could come in handy. Also:

fe2be067c03e2ae713092dd304d31e9a

Keep Calm and Ask to be Put in Hufflepuff

Ahem.

At any rate, what I mean by trick is that sometimes I take a circuitous or backdoor route into getting them to see/understand something that I want them to see/understand. To some extent, this seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, but I’ve only recently started to think about how/why it works.

For their first longer paper this semester, my students have to write a scene analysis. They’ve written shorter papers this semester that require them to analyze readings, we’ve verbally done analyses in class on the documentaries we’ve watched, and, of course, I know that analysis is part of their daily lives in a variety of ways. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll (initially) recognize the abundance of skills that they already have and apply them usefully to their essays.

So last week, we looked at a sample student essay, and I had them analyze a first draft and a final draft, looking particularly at the structure of the analysis, claims, evidence, etc. They discussed their findings with partners, and we also had a larger group discussion. As expected, they did a great job at finding places that needed improvement in these sample essays, and they were able to articulate specifically how/why the arguments didn’t work (or didn’t work as well as they could). Also, they really seemed to enjoy being able to rip apart some stranger’s essay.

Them: 😈

To pull the strands together, as we approached the end of class, I pointed out how well they’d done and how they clearly had a good sense of what worked and what didn’t in writing. And then I hit them with the: “Of course, now the trick is to remember and do all of these things in your own essays .”

Also them: 😏

Here’s the thing. I know that I’m not the first person to talk to them about this stuff, and they even had a reading on the subject for class last week (which, as we all know, some of the probably definitely didn’t read). But there’s a difference between having that information and applying it (or even realizing that you have it hanging out in your brain somewhere). However, I think that there’s a real chance that what we worked on that day will stick in their minds simply because they realized that they already knew how to do the thing I want them to do, and now all they have to do is do it.

(say that sentence 5 times fast)

Their essays are due in a week, so we’ll see how it goes, but based on the conversations we had in class, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Recovering Writing

Today is the fifth day of the new semester, and in a couple of hours, my students and I will be embarking on our third class meeting in which we will be tackling our first documentary (The Thin Blue Line for anybody who happens to be curious). I’m always, always excited to teach, but I’m especially excited to teach on days in which we’re discussing film and/or television shows because that is my jam. That’s what I do in my own work, and I love being able to open that up to students who often don’t know  (like I didn’t know when I was an undergrad) that this is something that has value, something that they can build a life on. In fact, we spent part of class during our second meeting discussing the importance of pop culture in our lives. On the short list of things that I’d like them to take away from this class (ok the list isn’t really that short, but still), I want them to understand how pop culture is intrinsically intertwined with our culture more broadly.

The other significant focus of our second class meeting was discussing writing. Though my class is one that is centered on documentaries, it is also a second year writing course. Throughout the semester, my students will be composing several different writing assignments, and I thought it necessary to both remind them of that component of the class and to see where their heads were at about writing.

When I asked how many people enjoyed writing, the raised hands were unsurprisingly few and far between. I’m not the first to say this (in fact, John Warner was tweeting about this yesterday: https://twitter.com/biblioracle/status/819534603165831168), but I think school often does ruin writing for students. It makes writing something that is wholly unenjoyable and uninspired, which is something that I intend to try to work against in my class. One of my colleagues mentioned a few days ago that one of his students said they had a teacher who dock them for the very particular way the essay was stapled.

For. The. Way. It. Was. Stapled. Y’all.

*Headdesk*

This is why, when I asked my students to write down something that they knew or believed about writing (inspired by this post: https://jcmadams.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/in-class-activity-what-we-know-about-writing/), I wasn’t surprised by answers like “Writing is tedious and time-consuming.” At some point, writing, particularly “academic writing,” all too easily becomes a series of hoops to jump through and requirements to check off without being emphasized as a valuable process, a useful means of expression, a creative outlet (yes, even the academic stuff), etc. So one of my goals this semester? Counter that. Counter it aggressively. Wish me luck, eh?

(And if you have any handy tips or suggestions, feel free to send them my way)

Netflix-y

In class this week, we pivoted from a focus on social media and television to a focus on Netflix and how it has (or hasn’t) changed the television landscape. We’ll be working with Netflix for a few weeks and exploring a variety of areas, such as how Netflix has affected television production, Netflix’s relationship to viewer desires and expectations, and binge watching. This week was primarily just about laying the groundwork and beginning to think about the ways in which Netflix came into such a position of prominence. Amongst the many questions we’re considering is “what makes a show a Netflix show?” To that end, we started our foray by looking at the first episode of Full House and the first episode of Fuller House. To some extent, they are essentially the same show (after all, that’s why people bought into the reboot), but there are ways in which the reboot definitely became Netflix-y that I wanted us to be able to identify. And we’ll be continuing to make such comparisons between broadcast/cable shows and Netflix shows for the next few weeks as we consider how Netflix has affected television production.

Today, we talked a lot about whether Netflix was turning us into puppets and about whether we were comfortable with the amount of data that Netflix is gleaning from us. We talked about data mining previously when we discussed live tweeting, and the students were apt to pick up the connection here. The readings for today’s class presented different perspectives on the issue, and I could tell that many of the students had mixed feelings about how Netflix was using their information.

In order to really dig into the readings, I had them each choose what they believed to be the most significant/important/interesting quote from each reading. Then I had them share their quotes or reasonings in groups. Next, each group had to agree one significant quote from each reading that they would share with the class. And then, as we went through each reading, each group presented their quotes, we discussed them, and I went over additional points from the readings that I wanted to address. If it hasn’t already become obvious, I really enjoy making them talk to each other. It serves a variety of purposes, including but not limited to me not having to talk the entire time and it gives me the opportunity to listen in on what they’re thinking, bearing in mind that when I ask people to speak as large group, some people are uncomfortable doing so. But hearing how they’re thinking through things in their smaller groups helps me to figure out what I need to emphasize in my contributions.

They also had to watch episodes of Chef’s Table and Bojack Horseman for today (so we could deepen our discussion of what makes a show Netflix-y) to which their respective reactions were basically “great” and “weird.” Yeah, basically.

Scandalous Conversations

We started our conversation about social media and TV in class today. While the primary focus for the next couple weeks is going to be on Twitter and TV, we did begin by just thinking about social media more broadly. To start the conversation, students got into groups and were given three sheets of paper (one for TV, one for Social Media, and one for Social TV). They were tasked with defining and visually representing each of those terms. I personally love activities like this because I think they provide space for those who think in a variety of different ways to come together and make meaning. After they were finished, they had to post their papers on the wall, and we did a mini-gallery walk before launching into conversation. Here’s some shots from the class:

 

We spent the rest of the class talking about the network/show reasoning for encouraging live tweeting & then we picked up our case study for the week, which was Scandal. Incidentally (or perhaps not so incidentally), that show was the first that I personally felt deeply driven to live tweet & the connection between those two things was responsible for my first ever conference paper in 2013 (shout out to PAMLA). I mainly wanted students to understand today why the network has such an investment in the being live tweeted and why this particular show lends itself to such engagement, and I think both goals were accomplished.