Tuesday, December 30, 2014

To Ban or Not To Ban (Laptops)?

Image Source
Earlier this year, Anne Curzan wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education that shared the speech she gives students each semester about why she prohibits laptop use in her classes. She made several excellent points, which I have anecdotally found to be true:

  • It's difficult to resist the lure of the internet.
  • The internet will draw you away from the classroom experience. 
  • No one actually multi-tasks well. 
  • Looking at a computer screen means you aren't making eye contact, so discussion becomes discouraged
  • Other students are distracted by one person's computer use, especially if the screen is visible to them.
  • It's distracting for the instructor, who is forced into awareness that a student is Not Paying Attention.
  • Taking notes by hand is more effective than taking notes on a computer. 

This last point I find especially intriguing. When I first heard it two years ago, it was credited to the physical act of handwriting. A study had shown that muscle memory helps mental memory. Curzan claims it's because students are forced to condense the lecture and decide the important points. They're actively processing the material instead of passively recording.

I found Curzan's argument to be persuasive enough that I started writing a laptop policy for my classroom. And then I stopped. Why? Because I love those moments when someone asks a question I don't know the answer to and someone looks it up. What's a word mean? Look it up. What year was the Charge of the Light Brigade? Look it up. How many siblings did Florence Nightingale have? Look it up. I especially enjoy it when students looks up information on their own.

It's true, I also use laptops for in-class activities. They're useful tools, especially in a writing classroom. But that moment of mystery and discovery is what I really value. So I was glad to read alternate points of view like this one from The Chronicle in September. Nicole Short's argument is that students must learn to discipline themselves, to do what's best because it's best and not because it's what they've been told.

What I've decided to do in my literature class is to assign a Note Book, a journal with notes from class and the reading which will be picked up and checked at different points in the semester. And it has to be hand-written. Students can still use their laptops in class if they like, but they'll have to write out their notes long-hand afterwards. That way I can make sure (1) they're taking some notes and (2) they're taking good notes.

N.B. I can only do this because I have just one lit class in the spring with a cap of 25 students. If I had more, I would probably just check off the notes or not require it at all. So often pedagogy suffers because of too heavy a load …

What's your view on the debate? If you allow laptops and tablets, what's your policy on their use?

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Remembrance of Pedagogies Past

Source: http://www.oprah.com/health/Health-
So many great teaching ideas, so little time. Because I don't teach the same courses every semester, I tend to forget strategies I use for particular texts, assignments, and goals. I get a brain fog.

Last week I remembered that after the midterm exam I had meant to hand out a reflection sheet, which I would then return right before the final exam. Its purpose is meta-cognitive, to help students identify studying patterns that do and don't work. But I forgot until far too late.

I know there were other things I forgot, usually in-class activities that I do with a text, or in-class writing to prepare for papers. But I've forgotten those, too. I just have that foggy sense of missed opportunities.

To combat this, I'm going to place a hand-written note on my cubicle wall that lists assignments or activities. So far, here are some that I have collected:
Debates, fishbowl discussion, mind maps, singing (for teaching meter), exit papers with muddiest/clearest points, having students bring questions more often, having students write questions as part of their exam, dioramas, paragraph puzzle, logical fallacies game, Jeopardy, jigsaw, peer teaching, demonstrating in class how to read and take notes, having students volunteer their notes to share, Wiki review, online workshops, the dating game, creative monologues, annotating a scene, drawing a set design, creating hyperlinks for a text, ...
What are some creative activities you like to do? Which of them lead to more sophisticated thinking?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Planning a Composition

I just attended the exhibit, "Marian Greenwood in Tennessee" at the UT Downtown Gallery. The centerpiece is the mural, "History of Tennessee" (1955).
"The History of Tennessee," hanging at the UT Downtown Gallery
Aren't these colors fabulous? Oil on linen. 
The mural itself is an impressive achievement. What really fascinated me, though, was the amount of planning Greenwood put into the painting. The exhibit displayed many of her sketches, some in charcoal, some pencil, some colored, etc. She re-worked the composition and the colors. Some things she knew from the start, like that in the center would be a couple square dancing. At one point she considered having Native Americans at each side (there aren't any in the final version). The center woman's dress might have ended up being much duller, according to one drawing.

I wish this exhibit would stay open during the semester so that writing students could attend and think about the importance of planning and why one might not choose to run with the first idea one has. With painting, little revision is possible and so planning becomes all the more important. But even in writing, the more work we spend planning, the less we have to revise.

Here are some of Greenwood's sketches:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Why can't students today write?"

This is a question I'm often asked when people find out I teach Composition (right after 'oops, I'd better be careful what I say!'). What's wrong with our students today, they wonder. Why can't they learn basic spelling and grammar? Why can't they write?

I'm not sure exactly what measure people use to judge students' writing. Perhaps they're listening to the news and all the test results. I'm pretty sure they aren't looking at the writing.

 From what I've seen, students' grammar is no worse than the average. The same person who asks me 'why can't students write?' has probably misplaced an apostrophe and used quotation marks for "emphasis." There are errors, but most of my students at a large state school can identify them once they're pointed out. Their proofreading skills aren't well-developed, and it's possible that composing ephemeral messages on a computer screen has contributed to that lack. Proofreading is largely a question of paying attention to detail, which requires caring. If writing comes and goes, why proofread?

 But writing is more than grammar. It's an ability to express ideas in such a way that others can grasp them. First-year college students struggle with this--all of them. That's because their ideas are becoming more sophisticated and they don't yet have the tools to express them. As they try to build more complex sentences and deploy new vocabulary, it's natural that they will fail sometimes. This is utterly normal. 

For evidence, I share with you an article by Rebecca Osborn published in College English. She writes of faculty who wish there weren't any freshmen and sympathetically states, "There is often reason enough for the protest that freshmen are immature, confused, and occasionally downright stupid." She adds, "If our students are not supremely gifted, if their educational background is faulty, if they are not widely read, they are, nevertheless, alert young people who have, for the most part, absorbed as much as they were given to absorb." The year? 1949. Folks, in 1949 teachers thought college freshmen could be immature, confused, stupid, and unprepared.

 I'm reminded of an apocryphal quote attributed to Socrates on "the youth of today." There's also this quote:
"The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress."
That's from a sermon supposedly preached by Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274. What I am suggesting is that all this talk of students not being able to write is cranky-old-teacher thinking. Let's focus instead on what our students need to take them to the next level.
Quintessentially Cranky.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Learning to Ask Deep Questions

It's hard to exaggerate the importance to education of asking good questions. To interrogate an idea, a dataset, or the basis of theorems, is to become intellectually active.

In the past, I have required students to bring one discussion question on a pre-assigned day. I've also required all students in a course to bring a question on the same day. I've met with limited success. Often the questions they bring are comprehension questions rather than discussion questions. I explain that a discussion question is one without one obviously correct answer, one we can debate. I even give an example of both types of questions. Yet, they don't ask the questions I want, the deep questions.

I read an article last fall that suggested having students ask a question on the exam and explain why that was a good question. I tried it in my British literature class, but the results weren't great. I hadn't prepared them enough, given them enough practice with asking questions.

One thing I must do is to teach students about different kinds of questions. I especially want students to learn to ask questions of interpretation, of assumption, of implication, of point of view, of relevance, of accuracy, of precision, of consistency, and of logic. I want them to use questions to probe and explore. I can do this by having students formulate questions in small groups during class or by preparing them in advance. But probably the most important way to teach asking questions is to model them. 

Modeling is the recommendation of Faculty Focus's "The Art of Asking Questions," by Maryellen Weimar. Specifically, she recommends:

  • Prepare questions.
  • Play with the questions. 
  • Preserve good questions. 
  • Ask questions that you don't know the answer to.
  • Ask questions you can't answer. 
  • Don't ask open-ended questions when you know the answer you're looking for. 
I do prepare questions in advance, but most of them are comprehension. I often ask open-ended questions when I know the answer I'm looking for. It's hard when it's a question without one answer, but I can predict their arguments from years of experience. I preserve questions in my lesson plans, and I often ask questions I don't know the answer to or that I can't answer. 

The area I plan to immediately address is playing with the questions.  Too often, when a question is asked, someone will give a pat answer, the quick answer, without exploring it (always an extravert). To include more members of the class and to encourage thoughtful answers, I can put the questions on the board or PowerPoint and ask them to write them in their notes. It can be a question addressed at the end of the class session or asked over several sessions until the best answer is found. This will also create unity in the course.

What techniques do you use to get students asking meaningful questions? 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pro-religion or Anti-gay? Rhetorical differences in reporting.

Fellow blogger Bellatricksy alerted me to this, and I'm saving it for the next time I teach rhetoric. I captured these images within minutes of each other (26 Feb 2014) and both are reporting on the same veto of the same Arizona bill.

"Arizona Religious Bill Is Vetoed," The Wall Street Journal
"Brewer vetoes bill denying service to gays," The Washington Post

How can we ever agree in this country if we aren't even arguing about the same things?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lecturing as a Rich Medium

In praise of the university lecture and its place in academic scholarship"
In the first unit of my Business Writing class, we discuss the advantages of different communication media, classifying them as lean or rich. A lean medium communicates in one direction, in the simplest way, and is impersonal. A rich medium allows for audience feedback, uses multiple informational cues (such as body language, tone of voice, charts, etc), and is more personal. Face-to-face is the richest medium for communication.

My pedagogy discussion group has been discussing the pros and cons of lecturing. Some people claim it's outdated and boring, that students can get the same information from the web. It's true that some days, it seems like I might as well record what I'm doing. By the third time I give a lecture in a day, I've started running on auto-pilot. Those are the days that I wonder about the usefulness of lecturing.

Then I remember that I'm not being fair to myself. Although I'm performing the same lecture, the audience feedback is slightly different every time. Even if it isn't different, the idea that I could possibly respond to student feedback changes the dynamic.

I just recorded a lecture for tomorrow's class (I'm sick and staying home). I managed to trim a 20-minute explanation of blogging down to 12 minutes by cutting the time for pages to load and some extraneous comments. Watching this lesson, it occurs to me that some students will need to watch it twice. And then they may still be confused. This isn't because of a problem with the lesson, but rather that I'm not there to respond to their questions as they occur.

During my lectures, I watch my students carefully. I watch their body language. How much are they understanding? Where is there a problem? When I see consternation wrinkling someone's brow, I find another way to restate my message. When I see hesitation, I'll ask if an idea is clear and perhaps give a sample application.

This richness is difficult to replicate in an online learning environment. My lectures usually include active learning moments, such as pair-and-share or applications of an idea, but they also involve frequent moments where I check in with my students. Perhaps, then, the lecture isn't on its way out. We're just changing our understanding of it.