Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Getting students to read paper comments

In composition studies, we spend a fair bit of time debating the best kind of paper comments. What's the best balance between marginal comments and end comments? How much should we address the grading criteria and how much should we provide encouragement or engage ideas? Often, however, it just doesn't matter--because students don't read the comments.

This is particularly true for electronic papers. To read paper comments on Blackboard Learn, a student must go to My Grades, click on the course, and scroll down to the assignment where he or she will see the grade and the comments I've entered in the grading block. And this is where students usually stop, although I've written "see the attached file for the grade rubric and more comments." They think, "where's the attached file?" They would have to click on the hyperlinked grade to even see the file, and most don't know this or don't bother. Since this is a complicated process, I went to the trouble to make a Screencast-o-Matic video and linked it on Blackboard--but I discovered they didn't watch it.

But today, I am feeling particularly brilliant. Our class was held in the computer classroom in order to learn to use Google Docs. For a practice activity, I asked the students to list their strengths and weaknesses as demonstrated by the first paper, which meant accessing the rubric. I walked several students through the process and directed them to the video. I was able to see everyone in the class open their graded files. Will they read the marginal comments? Probably not. But at least I know they have read the end comments and looked at the rubric.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Flipping the Classroom

Image Source
The "flipped classroom" is all the rage right now. There are articles in the Economist, The Chronicle, and Wired, and there's even a Wikipedia entry. The basic premise is that passive learning activities are moved outside the classroom and active ones are moved inside. For many disciplines, that means posting lectures as videos to YouTube or course management systems like Blackboard Learn or WebCT. What does it mean in the composition classroom?

Lectures in the composition classroom are rare, in my experience. Students may read outside of class (passive learning, though we try to get them to take notes and actively respond). In class, the most passive of approaches is large-group discussion with Socratic questioning. Often there will be small-group exercises to assist students with comprehension and analysis. And sometimes there is in-class writing. So, the basic composition classroom is already "flipped." (Contrary to the Wikipedia entry, the flipped classroom doesn't necessitate the use of internet technology.)

What, then, can composition glean from this trend? What if we move the major active learning activity into the classroom? That's right--let's write in the classroom.

Last week in my composition class, I spent 30 minutes watching a 30-second commercial with my students. We watched it again and again and again, taking a different set of notes each time. Their homework was to perform the same note-taking for the commercial they have chosen for their first assignment. In tomorrow's class, we're going to transform those notes (in groups) into model first drafts for the first paper. I'm very excited about this idea because it allays student anxiety. It provides a strong foundation, showing them how to perform the steps toward the paper. It presents writing as a process. I like it so much that I wish I had time to have them write the first page of their actual drafts in class.

Where does reading fit in? The reason I don't have time for more in-class writing is that there is some assigned reading we need to discuss. I could simply record a video lecture about the reading and have them watch it. But I also need to build a foundation for the second paper, which requires close textual analysis. I could reduce the amount of reading, but ultimately good writing is dependent upon good thinking, which comes about from reading and discussion. It's a hard balance.

Have you flipped your classroom? How do you balance reading and writing in your composition classes?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Writing is a process best begun early.

Here are two conversations I recently had with different students:

Student 1: "I'm having trouble focusing my thoughts. I just keep going around and around in circles. I feel like I'm trying to include too much."

Me: "Well, how many pages have you written so far?"

Student 1: "Oh, none."

Student 2: "I'm really worried about this topic. It just doesn't seem like there's enough to say. I don't really know where I'm going with it."

Me: "Well, how many pages have you written so far?"

Student 2: "Oh, none."

Okay. See the problem here? I suspect I'm speaking in another language when I tell them, "Write first. Make writing a part of your process. Writing is an act of discovery. No time spent writing is ultimately wasted."

They have also not heard me when I said, "The best paper is a done paper." Less than half of my students managed to submit their final papers on time.

My current mood vacillates between frustrated and punitive.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Exams as educational tools

While researching something unrelated, I stumbled across an article by Howard E. Aldrich entitled, "How to Hand Exams Back to Your Class" (College Teaching 49 [2001]: 82). Aldrich's method has several parts:

  1. An answer key with "best answers" given to the students
  2. Students meet in preassigned groups to compare their answers. Those with correct answers take on a teaching role, explaining why theirs is a better response. 
  3. At the start of the next class, Aldrich administers a 5-question multiple-choice quiz covering the questions most frequently missed. 
  4. A cumulative final exam.

Instead of glancing at the grade and stuffing the test into their folders, Aldrich's students use the test as a learning tool. It becomes necessary to review one's progress in order to improve at the next stage.

My literature courses aren't heavily test-based. I give 2 or 3 exams, including the final. What are your thoughts on cumulative finals in literature courses?  Would they encourage students to build on their previous progress? Or would they overwhelm them?
Image source

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thanks, Peyton!

Previously, I've commented on the problems caused by the physical learning space. This summer, I am overjoyed with my classroom. It's the most perfect environment I've ever had. The desks are independent and movable. The other classrooms nearby aren't noisy. We have a view of the river. The room has white boards and is stocked with markers. It's a SMART classroom, with a projector and sympodium. It also has . . . (drumroll) a working PC and an opaque projector! And I owe it all to Peyton Manning:
Sign outside my classroom in the Communications Building
And of course the nice folks at the Registrar who scheduled me there.

Having a PC in the room has made me very willing to include media that I ordinarily wouldn't have bothered with. In yesterday's class, I had planned for the students to put Tess Durbeyfield on trial. While they were working, I loaded a Pandora station to play music so they would be more comfortable talking. The speakers in the room were excellent. Later in the class, I played a clip from the 2008 BBC adaptation, available on YouTube. I decided to show it at the last minute; I would not have brought my own computer for these minor uses. There are also many days that I would (and initially did) bring my own laptop to hook up to class. I frequently give PowerPoint presentations about the historical context of our readings. It's wonderful to have a class where this is easy to do. Thanks, Peyton!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Raven, or The Death of the Author

Common Raven (and yes, they can be trained to talk)

The Raven (2012) features John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe in a highly imaginative (i.e. no basis in fact) plot. Poe helps solve a series of murders based on his stories. As one reviewer described it, "It's like a grisly one-person interactive book club focused on one man's literary output" (Michael Phillips). The movie itself is mediocre. Cusack's innate charm, plus decent performances from Alice Eve as his love interest and Luke Evans as the police inspector, can't quite rescue the film from poor pacing and uneven tone. Still, I quite enjoyed it. I love watching Cusack in just about anything, and I was able to congratulate myself about all the Poe stories I had read.

What I thought most about, though, was the pleasure readers take in seeing their favorite authors on film. Becoming Jane is a prime example, though it's in a different category than The Raven, being 90% factual. Dickens' appearance in Dr. Who ("The Unquiet Dead") and Stephen King in Quantum Leap (The Halloween Episode) are other examples. People like to interact imaginatively with authors. They also enjoy learning more about their lives and personalities, to look at the wizard behind the curtain.

As a teacher, I'm ambivalent about the place of biography in studying literature.

I was educated in the formalist tradition, where what matters most is the text. I grew into a reader-response position, where what matters most is the meaning that readers make out of the text. I see the text itself as unstable and shifting, based a set of signifiers waiting for the reader to settle into the signified. One must avoid trying to figure out the author's intent, which is ultimately unknowable--if I intended this post to be brilliant and you read it as boring, is that your fault or mine? In this way (and several others) I align with Roland Barthes, who in his seminal essay, "The Death of the Author" (1967), argues that the identity of the author shouldn't be used to form meaning.

But on the other hand, isn't the speaker part of the rhetorical exchange? And doesn't knowing the context in which something is written affect the meaning? I concede that knowing more about the author and his/her time is one way of adding meaning to the text. I do include historical and biographical background in my classes. But perhaps I should do more. After all, in college I greatly enjoyed learning stories about the author's lives, not just the bare facts in the textbook overview. Having the sense of really knowing an author was part of the pleasure for me.

 It occurs to me that I know very little about the life of Poe.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Recursive Journaling

In last year's English 101, I used student blogs to try to get students to reflect on their political ideals. I was dissatisfied with the depth they achieved. One possible solution is recursive journaling. This is where students write an initial journal, and then, after some discussion and additional information, they revisit the journal entry.

This process was briefly described in Lisa Taylor's article, “Reading Desire: From Empathy to Estrangement, from Enlightenment to Implication.” Students in Taylor's teacher-education course write their first journal as they read  Persepolis, commenting especially on their identification with Marjane. Students read contextual materials alongside Persepolis and learn more about history, then revisit their first journal. The purpose of this activity was to have students question their empathic identifications, which often are merely projections of the self onto the other. The recursive journals allowed students to examine their assumptions and place of privilege. 

Persepolis image from Slant Magazine
Have you used recursive journaling? If so, what sort of guidance did you provide to students?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The importance of attendance

One day I'm going to sit down and crunch the numbers on this, to get absolute proof. Regardless of the flaws in my data collection, I feel confident in saying that students who miss a lot of class end up with lower grades. And that's before the late penalty is added in.

For evidence I offer the following chart of grades and absences from two sections of the same undergraduate literature class. Notice the correlations after 9 absences--missing more than 3 weeks of class.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

To Test or Not to Test?

Last summer, I spent some time thinking through the learning outcomes for each of my courses. With regard to my Introduction to Fiction class, I decided that tests were not helpful. It ultimately didn't matter if they retained the knowledge; what mattered was the thinking processes that are best developed through writing exercises and class discussion. I followed that principle this spring and was reminded of why so many professors give tests: without the test, there is a significant subset of students who will not read. And they will congratulate themselves for not reading.

The class is not entirely without comprehension assessments: there were 10 quizzes over the course of the semester. This subset of students did not do well on the quizzes, but since the quizzes only account for 5% of the grade, I suppose they thought they weren't important.

How shall I remedy this situation? Give a proper final exam instead of the creative monologue project (which I'm enjoying immensely and students are finding rewarding)? Count the quizzes for more? Assign more quizzes? Write letters to their parents? --Just joking, but sometimes I wish this were an option.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Appointment Tools

I'm still searching for a good tool to use for letting students sign up for appointments with me. I don't use paper sign-ups, in part because students kept emailing me to ask for times and it was hard to keep track. I want a tool that allows me to establish a time range and the length of appointments, then allows students to sign up themselves.

Last week I thought I had found it with the Google Calendar. I've been using Google Calendar for over a year instead of a date book to organize my life. It works pretty well. I can access it from my computer or phone, and with limited success I can add events to it from my phone. Since I'm usually by my computer when I set up meetings, the phone-awkwardness wasn't a huge downside. Last week I was blocking off chunks of time for appointments and noticed the Appointment Slots feature. I was excited. It let me choose a time range and the length of appointments, and then it created slots where students could sign up.

The major downside is that you need a Google Account to even view the calendar. Not only that, but you must have activated your Google Calendar. I recognized this might be a lot to ask students, but I figured they probably all had Google IDs anyway.

They did not. Over half of them did, and were able to sign up on their own. The others I had to sign up, just like before. Also, it was difficult for me to view the calendar version with the sign-up slots on it, and difficult to modify appointments. I will not use this tool again.

Instead, for the time being, I will go back to using my Wiki, where anyone can post anything without signing in at all. It still runs the risk of someone deleting an appointment time (luckily I can undo changes), and it's annoying to set up, but it's the best thing I've found so far.

If you have an appointment sign-up tool that works for you, please share!

p.s. I've just discovered another problem with Google Calendar. If my students don't set their calendar to the correct time zone, they think their appointment is several hours off.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Putting Meat on Jane Austen

I'm teaching Persuasion right now in my Intro to Fiction class. When the students were in small groups Wednesday, I overheard two male students talking about how surprised they were that there was more to it than romance. "There's more meat on it," one said. I consider this a success, that I have taken a book that students expected to be fluff and shown them the depth and complexity.

To be fair, the romance in Persuasion is complicated. Austen emphasizes the depth and complexity of the emotions experienced by Anne and somewhat shows those of Captain Wentworth. I don't try to de-emphasize the romance, but I spend more class time on other aspects besides the romance plot, like ways of dealing with suffering, models of parenting, tensions arising because of class or rank, and Austen's style. I try to give the students something to chew on.

Friday, February 3, 2012

. . . and First Failure

Things were going swimmingly in Intro to Fiction. Their blogs and papers were looking good, and over half the class participated on an average day (not my best average, but decent). And then, Wednesday struck.

There were two short stories assigned that day, Jackson's "The Lottery" and Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." I wanted us to think about what realism is by comparing the techniques in these two tales. Only, the students were not prepared. Some of them had read Jackson in high school and decided they didn't need to read it again. Others read Jackson, but then figured that was enough. I suspect only 3 or 4 out of the 26 present read Garcia Marquez's beautiful story.

What made it worse is that I wasn't prepared. I wasn't prepared for them not to have things to say. I wasn't prepared to just lecture to them about the points I wanted them to learn. I had prepared comprehension questions to lead up to discussion questions, but they weren't responding. And so, I flipped out a bit.

Fuming Mad (image source)

There were 20 minutes left in my morning class, and I excused everyone who had already talked. That left 8 people. I was surprised there were actually so few who hadn't talked, which is one reason why in retrospect I blame myself for this situation. I had them do an in-class writing about what GGM was saying about religion in this story. The paragraphs were really interesting! The results reassured me that given more time to read the text and come up with things to say, everyone in that class can do wonderful things.

I had the afternoon class fill out a "participation worksheet" to start off class. That class was fine, nothing glowing, but fine. Today's morning class had a participation worksheet, and I think they did well in class. I'm hoping I don't often have to give them in-class tasks. It uses up valuable time when I can connect with them immediately, and I don't actually have time to read and respond to lots of in-class work. In an ideal university, I would have fewer students and I could give these types of assignments more often.

In an ideal university, students wouldn't need me to crack the whip; they would be self-motivated. And they would have lots of time to complete the small assignments I give them. I assign so little! I think this is what really bugs me. I've cut the amount of reading, and yet the students still don't prepare. Maybe it's just that point in the semester. We're completing week 4, and they have papers due in other classes. Maybe things will improve on their own. If not, there will be lots and lots of worksheets and group activities.

p.s. Yes, I give reading quizzes, but they're on Blackboard, and I had fallen behind in assigning them. You ought to see the quiz I wrote Wednesday night . . .

Thursday, January 26, 2012

First Success

Last week my Introduction to Fiction students submitted their first blogs of the semester. They were great! The students looked closely at words and thought about the meaning, often arriving at unique and creative insights.

Based on what I learned last semester, I lowered the required number of blogs to 4 and I standardized the format. Instead of different questions each time, the blogs are used for a close reading activity. I asked them to identify a passage of 1-4 sentences, analyze it objectively, then give their personal, subjective response. We first practiced in groups with Chopin's "The Story of an Hour." I pulled out two examples to show the class what worked and what didn't.

My upper-level class on Romantic Poetry and Prose has a similar assignment due this week. In their case, they are to pick 2-6 lines of poetry and provide an objective and subjective response. We practiced in class with Byron's "She Walks in Beauty," and I reviewed two posts as with the fiction class. The first of these blogs have started coming in, and I'm very pleased. My initial goal with their blogs was to make them more comfortable with poetry and build their close-reading skills, but I think they may also help them determine a topic to research later this semester.

To grade the blogs more easily, I cut-and-paste all of the ones submitted on time to a Word file and wrote the grade and comments after each one. I entered the grade in an Excel file and uploaded it, then added comments using Blackboard Grade Center's Quick Comment feature. It's still clunky, but it's much easier than trying to negotiate the tools within the Campus Pack blog tool.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The dangers of being nice

Some students, if you give them an inch, they'll take an ell.

I've been working with a distance education student over the semester break. Let me say first off that I had other plans for my time during the break, and I receive very little financial reward for this. It's mostly a service task. The distance education program was closing at the end of December, and I assumed I was done with the whole program. All my active students were finished. At the end of November, a new student contacted me, desperate to finish the course that s/he had been enrolled in for 6 months but hadn't started. I took time during exam week to meet with this student, to give advice about ways to actually do it in a month, even though no one ever had. The student did not follow my advice. Two weeks went by and there were no assignments. I assumed the student realized the difficulty and quit. I eventually sent a query, and then received a barrage of assignments at once, all within the last 9 days of the year. I graded them as quickly as I could, and I graded them pretty leniently. One assignment submitted was the wrong file, and I sent notification. In January, the student finally found my note and send the correct file. At this point, the class was over and the deadline was past, but I was feeling generous so I decided to grade it, but only after I returned from out of town. I also had to immediately grade the final exam upon my return because of the graduation deadline and because the student took the exam later than we initially agreed. Today I went into the office to grade the exam and the re-submitted file. When I opened the file, I saw it was yet again the wrong one, so I simply assigned a grade of 0, calculated the grade, and then immediately contacted distance education with the final grade so it could be quickly processed. I even drove downtown to drop off the exam personally at their offices.

And when I got home, I have no less than 4 emails from this student sending the correct file and begging me to grade it. (I'm not going to.)

This is the thanks I get for being nice. This encounter demonstrates Moriarty's maxim in "The Blind Banker," the second episode of Sherlock: "Gratitude is meaningless. It is only the expectation of further favours."

I've seen this pattern play out with other students, too, and I've seen a similar phenomenon in the hospitality industry. I worked in a semi-ratty hotel for a while. When there was a festival and we charged over $100 for a night, no one complained about the rooms. When we had $30 specials, we had lots of complaints about the tears in the carpet and stains on the bedspreads.

Going in to the new semester, I'm inclined not to give an inch.

Sometimes I wish I could be as cold as Simon Cowell (pic source).