Friday, January 26, 2018

Striking a balance

Rocks balanced on the beach

The beginning of the semester is incredibly important, as it sets the tone for the rest of the semester.

The first thing that has to occur is showing your students that the class has value. This makes them willing to work and more patient with the educational process. The way I do this in Writing for the Workplace and Technical Communication is beginning with a lesson about email. Many students use it poorly or too informally. Interestingly, as texting has replaced email for informal communication, student awareness of email as professional communication has increased, so it's possible I will need to change tactics.

In a writing class, the second task is to establish community. The students will be providing feedback to one another and working in project groups, so it's vital that they get to know each other. I accomplish this through group work such as asking composition or literature students to share their favorite quote from the text with one another.

Neither of these projects is complex or mentally demanding, and there lies the danger. If too much time is spent on them, students may start to think they don't have to work.

As I was talking to my Workplace Writing students today, I noticed that none of them had their book out. Few even had their computers open. That had to change. When I put them into groups, I gave them a task requiring the book, and for once I didn't project the book onto the classroom's screen. I'm always urging students to be self-directed, which means I had better stop babying them!

I titled this post "striking a balance" because a successful educational environment must be comfortable but not TOO comfortable.

Friday, January 19, 2018

In-class collaboration with Google Docs

BLUF: Google Docs is useful for collaboration and community building. 

Today each of my composition classes created a chart using Google Docs. Based on the "Writing in the Disciplines" section of the Writer's Harbrace Handbook, they compared standards of writing in the humanities, in the social sciences, in the natural sciences, and in business. I asked them to compare the purposes for writing (such as interpretation or solving a problem), tasks (like summary, description, literature review, laboratory steps), sources of evidence, and some conventions. Here is part of one class's chart: 

Chart as described above

I assigned this task because their first paper asks them to evaluate "truth and knowledge" in a discipline, which is a broad, vague topic that must be refined and limited to be successful. I argue that examining standards of writing is one way to approach the types of claims and evidence valued in a field. 

After discussing their findings, each group created an entry for "truth and knowledge" in their discipline. Here is what they found: 

  • HumanitiesTruth is subjective. Truth is an abstraction. Knowledge is valuable for its own sake. Knowledge is facts and theories, history and perspectives. Reasoning is very important. Complex claims are most valued. Argumentation is valued to hone reasoning skills and for leading to better understanding.
  • Social SciencesTruth is observable/replicable and evidenced through research/experimentation. Truth is objective. Knowledge can be proven and should be shared. Knowledge contributes to the conversation in the field and can be expanded on by other professionals. Derives something concrete from broad, observable phenomena
  • Natural Sciences: can only disprove or fail to disprove a “truth”. truth is what you observe and what can be reproduced. quantitative data are valued more than qualitative data when it comes to what is knowledge. extensive background knowledge of particular field required to get as close to truth as you can get. unarguable, empirical, fact based truth and knowledge. what can be seen and tested
  • Business: Truth is often dependent upon the situation. Most truths are based on facts. However truths are commonly portrayed with bias leading to misconceptions. Knowledge is based upon truths paired with past experiences. Knowledge is more valuable as the genre requires the individual to be have a certain drive for the business or idea to be successful.

I'm very pleased with their thinking. They're gaining confidence and depth as they discover avenues for exploring the topic. I'm especially pleased with the community-building that occurred in each class as a result of the collaboration.

I enjoy using Google Docs in class because it's fun. It can have a large number of collaborators at any moment--20 seems to be a reasonable limit, based on past experience--which made some chaos inevitable. Sometimes one student would be writing a sentence only to have another edit it right behind them. The anonymity of logins makes it a challenge to discover who the culprit is! They laugh at the login-handles: animals like the loris or elephant. The laughter makes the task more enjoyable, encourages them to relax, and brings them together as a group. 

One further advantage of this task is that they'll have this document to look back on for the rest of the semester. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Frustrated learners

Hula hoops with drawn sad face

It's very humbling to be bad at something.

I'm trying to learn to hula hoop. I have NEVER been able to do this. Not as a child. Not now. I want to do it because (a) it looks like fun and (b) I want to prove something to myself, that there's nothing wrong with me and I really can do this.

Obviously, there's a lot of psychological baggage tied up with this. It comes from watching everyone else do something and making it look so easy.

Is this how my students feel who tell me they've never been good at English? For some of us, language just clicks. Like someone who succeeds at hooping their very first time, people who are "good at English" probably enjoyed playing with words at an early age, took pleasure in their sounds and variety. And it came "naturally." Of course, "nature" depends on a lot of factors, like how much their parents read and their early teachers.

I suppose there was a time when language wasn't easy for me. I remember in kindergarten, my teacher asked me to summarize the story of the three little pigs after we had just watched a film on it, and I was embarrassed that I couldn't do it. There must have been other struggles before that. But it was so brief and so long ago.

Some of my students, though, have been stuck at the same skill level for years. They learned to read and compose their thoughts up to a certain level, and didn't progress beyond it. And it's terribly frustrating. If they feel anything like I felt tonight at my hooping class, they sometimes want to cry.

I think it's important to recognize that learning can be an incredibly emotional process. It's easy to turn off and give up when something causes us pain. Tonight the other students told me it takes time and that it was hard for them too. I don't fully believe them, but it's comforting. That's something our students need from us: the awareness that getting to the skill level they want to be at will take time, and the assurance that eventually they can do it.

Monday, November 20, 2017


We're all in such a hurry these days. Myself included. 

We skim our newsfeeds and social media. If a video is over 10 minutes, we seldom open it, and even a short video is abandoned if it doesn't engage us in the first 15 seconds. We depend on abstracts and summaries. 

This impatience extends to other areas of our lives. For instance, I've been ordering groceries online because it's faster. I can sit in my car, reading Facebook, while a clerk loads the trunk. I'm usually in and out within 10 minutes. 

As a teacher, the length of an assignment is something I have to give special consideration to. Will this engage the students? Will they watch/read the whole thing? Will they stop and think about it? Or will their response be "tl; dr" (too long; didn't read)? I'm beginning to prepare some videos for an online course I'm teaching in the summer, and the current recommendation is to keep videos under 5 minutes. Five! 

The benefits of slowing down are obvious. It takes time to consider multiple sides of an argument, to fact-check, to consider our logic, to formulate a response. Inspiration takes time. Art takes time. 

A recent book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, advises faculty to reject the corporate culture of speed and train our students to slow down. But that's not what I'm arguing for today. 

What I would like to suggest is that people have always been in a hurry. Always. Humans feel the pressure of mortality and passing time. Think of Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be," or Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Before television and mass transit, a family sat in their drawing room, sewing or playing games or reading, and wondering whether their lives were worthwhile. Now we're in a hurry faster, but Time's bending sickle is headed for us all. 

Urging people to slow down isn't the answer. Instead, we should focus on consciously choosing what we spend time on. As teachers, we can train future generations to use their limited time well, to consider what is best summarized and what is best read in depth, or what are the best sources for recaps. Accepting a natural, human impulse is a much better use of faculty time than complaining about students who are in a hurry. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Skateboarding is not a crime.

This phrase was taught to me when I was in teacher training at the University of Iowa. The workshop leader meant that if students want to skateboard through college, that's their right. I've held on to that idea ever since, and it prevents me from getting too frustrated over students who aren't reading, aren't studying, and are writing their papers at the last minute.
Nick Robson catches some air
If this is how someone wants to spend their college years, I think that's their choice. A poor choice and a wasted opportunity, but a choice. 

But what I've been wondering lately is whether I should be less accepting of this attitude. What if students "skateboard" because they feel their success doesn't matter to anyone, and I could be the person it matters to? What if they just need some encouragement?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Flipping the Library

It isn't uncommon to change a course schedule to adapt to student needs. But sometimes it leads to surprising results.

Composition II at my institution focuses on research skills. When I'm teaching the unit on secondary sources, I usually don't take time to introduce the library--the library is supposed to be covered in Composition I.  The preparation level of our students has changed in recent years, however, leading to more first-semester students who already have credit for Composition I from elsewhere and hence have no library experience. I realized on the first day of the unit, as I was demonstrating the library databases, that they needed help finding books and navigating the library. So, I added a library day. 

Students began by completing a "pre-search" worksheet asking for basic information about their proposed topic for the research paper, some contextual information, keywords that could be used in a search, and the call number and title of a possible source. All the students had to do for that Wednesday was find me on the library's first floor, show me the completed worksheet, find the book, and then show me the book. 

Somehow I expected I would have a lot of time to myself, that they would find the book and be done with it, and that the day was really about them having more time to gather research. It turned out differently. I only had brief periods to myself. Some students needed help understanding the overall paper assignment. Some didn't have their worksheet completed. Others were prepared but needed help understanding call numbers, figuring out where the books were shelved, or locating the circulation desk. 

Simple as it was, the day was very useful and revealed areas where students had misunderstandings. In retrospect, I realize that this was a flipped class. Walking through the library and finding books are usually out-of-class tasks. Having them complete the activity during class time ensured, first, that they did it and, second, provided them with valuable guidance. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Information Design in the Course Syllabus

Information design refers to visual and organizational aspects of a document that facilitate communication. It includes font face and size, colors, layout, headers, and images. Information design is most effective when it conforms to the needs of a specific audience. It helps them break information into chunks and see the relation among ideas. Attention to information design also builds credibility by demonstrating a concern for audience needs.

On the course syllabus, appropriate information design can convey that the course is strategically organized. It also enables readers to locate information quickly. “Headers, graphics, and layout strategies can make syllabi more attractive and user-friendly.”[1]  On the practical side, more information will fit on the page if formatted well. Columns, for instance, permit smaller font sizes because each line is shorter. Compare:
  • Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Morbi sit amet velit vitae massa. 
  • Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur
    adipiscing elit. Morbi sit amet velit vitae massa. 
The second example would be easier to read, though the text is otherwise the same.

Information design is especially important in lower-level classes where students may easily become overwhelmed. Imagine a first-year student faced with this dense sheet of information (please don't try to read it--the words don't matter):

If this page had been broken into two columns and given larger subheadings, the sections would be easier to parse. I sometimes use a newsletter template from MS Word to create columns and sections, but you don't have to go that fancy, as the next example illustrates:

The comparison is a little unfair because the first example was the syllabus's first page and this one is the second. Nevertheless, it shows how white space and underlining can assist in organizing information.

[1] Slattery, J.M., and J.F. Carlson. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching 53,4, 159-164. p. 163. DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.53.4.159-164.