Preparation

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.

 

Advertisements

Incorporating Student Feedback from the Start

The new semester started at my university this week, and I’m teaching First Year Writing for the first time in a couple of years. Our First Year Writing classes are themed, and they focus on analytical writing. I decided to have my section be themed “Representations of Food in Culture” because I’ve been wanting to teach a class about food for a long time and because I knew it’d be fairly accessible to the entire class.

This is my second time teaching First Year Writing here. As I prepared for the new semester, I found that I really wanted to slow down the process, and I wanted to make sure there was some solid foundation before we get to working on the bigger assignments.

As such, we’ve spent most of this week on topics like using your voice, how to read for college, how to take notes, what we know about writing, etc. We’ve had one reading related to the theme, and we talked about their first essay today, but beyond that, we’ve been taking our time to get established. Thus far, I’m enjoying this approach. I’m one of those people who gets REALLY into course prep, and I’m susceptible to the impulse to DO ALL THE THINGS. But I think that sometimes less really is more. There’s more breathing room and more time for things to marinate.

Over the years, I’ve done various things to get feedback from students, such as mid-semester evaluations and course blogs. I don’t generally like to wait until end-of-semester evaluations comes because (a) we should all know by now that those evals can be #problematic and (b) while that feedback is useful for future classes, getting feedback earlier is more useful to the current students.

Thus, I’ve decided to incorporate various reflective and metacognitive activities into the course this semester. One such activity is the Minute Paper. I’m sure a fair amount of you are familiar with the activity (or something similar). Essentially, at the end of class, you have students turn in a short response noting something they learned and a question they have. You could do this at the end of every class session, but I’m having my students submit it once a week.

What I like about this, besides the fact that it allows me to make changes/tailor future sessions as needed, is that students will write things they would probably never say to me directly. This opens up a line of communication between me and them that might not exist otherwise. It also allows me to check and make sure that the messages I’m trying to convey are coming across clearly. Here are some things they found important this week:

  • “The most important thing I learned is that you value the writing portion of the class more than the grades, which I appreciate”
  • “The most important thing I’ve learned this week is that writing doesn’t have to be so structured and put-together, which basically throws everything I’ve ever learned about writing out the window”
  • “The most important thing I learned this week is that you are encouraged to tell your own story and not simply conform to ‘normal English rules.'”
  • “Most important: speak truthfully and with purpose. Write the same way.”
  • “The most important thing I learned all week was how to approach academic readings. The excerpt we read the first night was very helpful.”
  • “I learned that there are not as many limitations to writing. It’s just how, when, and where these limitations can be applied. Writing can be whatever the writer wants it to be.”

When I look at these I responses, I feel reasonably confident that they got what I wanted them to get out of this first week. When we have class again next week, I’ll respond to some of their questions. All in all, I think this is turning out to be a much appreciated addition to my teaching repertoire.

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)

Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 5

Today, I had my second meeting with my advisor to discuss my first draft of my chapter. Across the two meetings, he gave me a lot of questions and angles to consider as I continue to revise the chapter and as I work toward the second chapter. He also asked me about my process, which was, I think, just curiosity on his part, but I liked being able to talk about it a bit. It’s a really long draft, longer than I’d intended, and I’d expected him to tell me to cut something. But actually, he wants me to expand one of the parts.

So.

There’s that.

Haha.

More than most other things I’ve written in graduate school, I feel like the dissertation that has a really vague shape to me. I’m the type of person that often looks at samples when I’m writing something I’m unfamiliar with, but dissertations are all over the place and non-specific in terms of what they’re supposed to be doing (at least from what I’ve seen). As a result, I’d told my advisor that I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be, and he said, in reference to the draft, “It looks like a dissertation chapter,” which is to say, that even though I have things to work on, I’m apparently on the right track. I have a couple other streams via which I’m getting feedback, so it’ll be interesting to see what other people see/think, but I’m glad to know that I’m in the correct vicinity.

So the way I have my schedule laid out for the rest of the semester is to continue researching for the chapter two as I’ve been doing for the past couple weeks while also doing some revision of the first chapter on one day per week. My advisor said I could wait until I finished a draft of chapter two before going back to chapter one, but I don’t think my brain will allow it lol.

Speaking of chapter two, this is what I’m wrapped up in right now:

Beverly Hills, 90210 cast photo

Oh Scott…

So unlike some of the other series I’m writing about, I’ve watched this series in its entirety on more than one occasion (shout out to FX). But I last watched it circa 2003. And wow, I have a lot of things to say about this show now like STEVE SANDERS IS THE WORST. My advisor told me that the process of doing chapter one would make certain things stand out more easily in subsequent chapters, and I think that’s definitely right. And I feel like going into actually writing this second chapter, I have better sense of what it can/should be.

Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 4

Just a few moments ago, I sent my advisor my first full chapter draft (along w/ a message containing several concerns that I have about it haha). Remember how I was talking about my ever-changing deadline before? Well, this last go-’round, I set it for the end of Fall Break, and I actually made it this time. Huzzah! I know that there’s still a long road ahead with this, but I’m glad to have gotten past one particular hurdle, and I’m (almost) ready to start tackling the next one.

In other news, it’s approximately the middle of the semester. My students had midterms/essays due last week, which means I have a nice chunk of grading on my desk. Part of why I really wanted to get this draft done is so I can focus on that. I hate feeling like I’m shortchanging students, and I always want to try to get work back to them as soon as possible, especially if they have more things to turn in.

(Because what’s the point of feedback if a person doesn’t have it in enough time to actually use it?)

This balancing act is tricky, but I think my already embedded practice of scheduling my life in grad school helps. Back when I taught middle school, there were definitely times where I let the prep and grading bowl me over. There are so many ways in which, even with a degree in English Ed, I wasn’t ready yet. I was exhausted on the daily and not making the progress I wanted/needed to make. I’m better equipped now, thankfully. I just wish I could go back in time and help out 24 year old Jacinta.

(Though that’d likely throw off the time-space continuum, which is probably not a good idea)

A picture of the doctor from Back to the Future

#WritingLife

Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 3

It’s been almost two months since my last update, which was not at all intentional. But life and politics and school starting and the diss…

You get the picture.

At any rate, as mentioned previously, I spent most of the summer doing research for my first dissertation chapter. Last month, I dug in and started writing (I’d been writing informally while doing research, but now I’m into the more structured stuff). It’s been going well…ish? I posted this on a writing group I’m in a couple weeks ago:

Post about the arbitrariness of dissertation deadlines

Shout out to dissertation humor.

This is only slightly written for comic effect. My initial (HIGHLY ASPIRATIONAL) goal when I began working on the diss in May was to have a chapter draft done by the end of July, then it became beginning of August, then end of August, then end of September, and it’s currently mid-October.

And the thing about it is that I am working. I’ve been writing pretty consistently every week. I have hella pages, but this chapter needs more content (and yeah, this is before revision, which I’m very much trying not to think about right now, thank you very much). I have a good sense of the things I want to say, but what I’ve come to realize is that writing all those words down takes much more time than I’d initially planned for.

I made a timeline for the whole project when I started to give myself some structure because there isn’t really much when you get to the dissertation except “get out before they take your money” haha. And I’ve had to reconfigure that schedule some during this first chapter process. When I look at it, I can see my inner overachiever wreaking havoc. Last semester, somebody on my committee told me ahead in the process. I don’t think I *technically* am, but I do have a tendency to push myself (mostly within reason) to get things done. I’m trying to get myself to a place where I can go on the job market next fall, which should still be reasonable with the timeline I’ve laid out for myself, but even knowing that, I still have a bit of inner turmoil every time I push it back.

That being said, I’m getting better at it (*I think*).

P.S. Everybody responsible for dissertation formatting needs to look at their lives and their choices because these fights y’all are making me have with Word are not cute.

 

Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 2

It’s been a little bit over a month since my last update, and where am I now?

Well, I’m inching closer to being able to have a full first draft of Chapter One, but I’m not there yet. When I first charted out my schedule for the summer a few months ago, I’d hoped to have the draft done by August 1st. I realized about halfway through the summer that that probably wouldn’t happen, so I’ve recaliberated the schedule accordingly. On one hand, I’m a little bit annoyed about not having met the goal I set, but on the other, I’m not really trying to dwell on that. I just want to keep it moving. I do think I’ll have a draft in a few weeks, which will dovetail into the beginning of the school year (more on that momentarily).

Remember how I was researching Beauty and the Beast(s) before? Now I’m on Battlestar Galactica(s). I’d never watched them previously (I know, I know), but I’m a big ol’ nerd (I think I’m actually becoming more nerdy as I get older haha), so this is right in my wheelhouse.

Incidentally, now that folks know I’m working on remakes, I get tags from friends every time there’s new articles about them (#MyBrand). Shout out to y’all for helping with my research!

(I’m not adding anymore shows than what I already have allotted though. Because if I did, at the rate remakes are being churned out, I’d never finish.)

As the semester looms closer, I’ve been thinking more about how I’ll try to stay productive at this stage. I’m completely done with course work, and I’m past all of the various checkboxes except the dissertation itself. There are things that I’ve been doing for years now, such as scheduling everything on my Google Calendar, that I think will continue to be helpful going forward. And I’ve been setting goals for daily writing that I’ve been able to meet fairly well. But I also wanted to see if adding something else into the mix would be helpful. So I got a Passion Planner. It’s been years since I’ve had a real planner, but I used them all throughout high school and undergrad. Though I do rely heavily on GCal, I think that using both will both help to remind of what’s coming up as well as force me to be intentional in thinking about and planning for the tasks that are ahead. I looked at a lot of different planners before I made my purchase, but I really like how the Passion Planner encourages you to identify goals, break them up into smaller tasks, and embed those tasks into your schedule.

Speaking of schedules, I found out I’m teaching Intro to Film this fall. At my university, the way this works is there’s a prof who does the lecture two days a week, and the grad students teach discussion sections one day a week. I’ve taught this class before, and I’m looking forward to doing it again with some definite tweaks to what I did previously. It’s a little bit wild to think about since it hasn’t been that long since I last taught the class, but I know my pedagogical beliefs and goals have changed significantly since then. I do find it a bit strange to teach this way though because I’ve almost always been the Instructor of Record. One perk with this arrangement is that I have to do a lot less planning, and I grade less often, which should be a good thing as I continue to work on the dissertation. But when I do have to grade, it’s a lot more papers because we’re given more students in this arrangement, and I never feel like I have enough time with the students since I only get them once a week. Tradeoffs. Nevertheless, it’s a film class, and there are few things I enjoy more than being able to talk to students about film, TV, and pop culture, so it should be a good time 🙂