Sunday, October 30, 2011

College Ready Writing Has Moved

Welcome to College Ready Writing, Version 1.0. I am no longer updating this space regularly, but please head over to Inside Higher Ed for Version 2.0 of my blog.

Please feel free to continue to browse these old posts and comment on them. I'll be linking to posts here from time to time; the wonderful thing about the web is that the conversation can continue dynamically over time.

Thanks for clicking, reading, responding. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Big News! CRW is Moving Up!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or who troll Inside Higher Ed carefully) already know that I am now an official part of their Blog U! College Ready Writing is the newest member. I've already (technically) been blogging for Inside Higher Ed as a contributor to the University of Venus, but now my blogging will be over at Inside Higher Ed full-time. I'll still be writing for UVenus once a month, as well as contributing longer Views pieces (which I've recently started doing). 

I'd really, really, really like to thank all of you, my loyal readers for all of your support (and traffic!) over the past two years. It is because of you that I am able to take advantage of this opportunity to grow my audience, extend the conversation, and really participate more fully in the conversations taking place about higher education. The words won't change (much), but the visibility will be more significant.

I'm still not sure about what I am going to do with this space. Obviously, I'll keep the archives here, but I'm not sure if I'm going to do simultaneous updates. If you do "follow" this blog, please adjust your Reader/RSS feed/whatever system you use to keep track of all of the various blogs you follow. I hope that you'll follow me over there and tell all of your friends. When I get back from my conference on Monday, I imagine I'll do one last post with the link to IHE, front and center. 

Here is the text from my first post over at Inside Higher Ed, which I will link to the moment it goes live: 

To my regular readers, welcome to my new home here at Inside Higher Ed. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the blogging community here. I appreciate that Inside Higher Ed has been at the forefront of supporting academic bloggers and encouraging academics to write in ways that aren’t typically supported by traditional higher education. Blogging has been a liberating experience, and I’m curious to see what direction this new venue takes my writing. I doubt I’ll change much in terms of style or content, but one never knows.

(I’ve already edited this piece way more than any piece that’s gone up at the “old” site, so there you go.)

For those of you who are new to my regular blog (you may know me from here as one of the University of Venus writers), I invite you to click over to the “old” (virtual) place to check out some of the archives. I write about teaching, I write about writing, I write about balancing work/life, I write generally about higher education. I teach writing off the tenure-track at a rural state university. I study literature, translation, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. I am a mother of two and a wife of an academic (not in my discipline) who is on the tenure-track. I was born in Montreal, Canada, and I’ve lived and taught in two provinces and three states.

Being invited to blog here at Inside Higher Ed feels like approbation for a lot of work and writing. Almost two years ago, I was unemployed and miserable, and I took a chance and started to blog. Because I wasn’t in an academic position (and my family situation kept me from really looking for another), I was free to take chances with my writing and reach out and make connections that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. An answer to a CFP from the University of Venus put me in contact with Mary Churchill, to whom I owe a great deal, particularly in giving me to confidence to seek out this opportunity. I’ve connected to a community of academics (and former academics), none of whom I would have met had I not started blogging.

I kept blogging when I got my current teaching position. I’ve created, through my blog and Twitter, a Personal Learning Network (or PLN) that rivals any face-to-face professional development opportunity I’ve participated in. I find support and community, and I’ve been touched by the number of people who have reached out to thank me for a post on one topic or another, from practical classroom issues to personal admissions to irreverent observations. I’m looking forward to extending that reach and that community here at Inside Higher Ed.

So, welcome to this new space. I usually update three times a week, but this week is a bit of an exception as I am going to a conference and thus won’t be able to blog until I get back on Sunday (and if you’re in Toronto, tweet me or head over to Ryerson for the conference). 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bad Student: I Was an Undergrad Snowflake

(We're finally watching Bad Teacher because it's now available on PPV; it seems fitting that I write this particular post while Cameron Diaz plays a deplorable human being, let alone teacher, in the background.)

There was an interesting discussion over at Prof Hacker about venting about students using social media. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I, from time to time, make negative observations about my students. They are general and they never discuss grades. What I often am looking for are some words of encouragement and support, as well as a place to sort through my often conflicted feelings about how things are going in my class. And, more often than not, these tweets (and the responses to them) turn into blog posts (like the most recent one on plagiarism). I don't tweet anything that I wouldn't tell my students in class. 

But, as I wrote in the comments of the Prof Hacker post, 
I think that when we express some of our frustration about our students online, for me on Twitter, I think it shows us as human, who get frustrated and discouraged, just like our students. I also think that an angry tweet about, say, catching a plagiarizer serves as an immediate reminder that a) yes we will catch you and b) it will not be good.

Our classes don't always go as planned. Sometimes it can open up a conversation about what went wrong and why from both our perspective as well as the students. Also, I think some students need to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable from them, and that that is a "universal" sentiment, expressed through tweets and RT from lots and lots of professors on Twitter. 
I know that if I had seen behavior that I recognized as my own tweeted out by one of my profs, I'd have actually reconsidered my own attitude and actions. See, I was an undergraduate snowflake. In fact, I was probably the worst kind; the kind that still got really good grades, despite a) rarely attending class and b) putting little effort into the assignments. I left just about every single paper until the last minute, handing work in late, and just generally not caring about my classes very much.

(There were a few exceptions, of course.)

I kept behaving badly because I got away with it. No one called me out on my crap, at all. I know now that I must have driven my professors absolutely crazy. Either that, or they didn't care (and really, maybe they didn't). If there was a way that I could have known that they did, indeed, care and that my behavior (and, to be fair, the behavior of many of my classmates) was unacceptable, I probably would have changed it. It wasn't until I realized myself, through a mixture of professional quasi-failures and hitting an academic wall during my MA, that really, being a snowflake may have been fun for me, but it was totally unfair to my professors.

(In writing this, I am beginning to totally understand Worst Professor Ever's attitude towards teaching.)

My professors were human and professionals. They deserved better treatment than what I gave to them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: I'll Need to Drive a Little More

We're at the half-way point of the semester. Mid-term grades are in. One of my classes handed in their "required" paper, while the other class has begun their presentations. I have some thoughts about how each class is going and how I will be doing this class next semester.

In my "stronger" class, the presentations have been excellent. The discussions have been interesting and the the students are clearly interacting with the material in ways I could never have hoped they would had I assigned them the same thing. Class participating seems a little better, though dominated by a handful of students. I'll have to "encourage" the students to find a way to include more of their peers in the discussions. No one has dropped the class. There have been no complaints about attendance or students not doing their "fair share." It's amazing.

My other class, we started with the required essay. This was a MISTAKE. Yes, it was a mistake that the students directed, but it's a mistake that I won't allow happen in the future. Here's why it was a mistake. Students wanted to get the required paper out of the way first, and as a result, the class turned into a traditional course, mostly directed by me. The students weren't engaging with the subject. Students stopped coming. Some students didn't even hand in an essay. The course became too much like a normal class, so they treated it as such. 

Now, we're on to projects of their choosing. The difference is incredible. Students who never said a word are engaged and excited. Attendance isn't a problem anymore (except for a few who I think are going to withdraw). The lesson is, do the unconventional first, because then they'll be hooked and more likely to produce good work, even on their "traditional assignment." I will still given students the choice of what they work on, how the project is formatted, how they are ultimately graded/evaluated, but I think I will set the schedule for them from now on.

I'm fascinated by this video on motivation. What worked with my students was to let the students do exactly what Dan Pink recommends (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose), the results were impressive. In my "stronger" class, we never talked about grades. Not once. In my other class, grades became their incentive/reward/profit. And it didn't work. There was little autonomy (at least, they didn't perceive that there was; they saw that they were required to write a traditional essay and thus lost their autonomy), little desire for mastery (meh, writing, rather than mastery or attempting mastery of a topic that they are interested in), and their purpose was simply to get a paper out of the way and get the grades. 

Now, I'm trying to figure out how to provide this same kind of environment in my other classes. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Work-Life Balance: When Life Get in the Way

If you've been reading, I was actively working on achieving some sort of work-life balance in my family. This past weekend was our "fall break" and thus my husband and I had Thursday and Friday off of work. Because much of the support staff at our kids' preschool are students, the preschool was closed as well. This was a perfect opportunity to reconnect as a family and spend some time together.

And it largely worked. It was a beautiful fall weekend where we could enjoy our back yard, head out of "Court Days" in a neighboring county, and just spend time all together as a family. The kids became noticeably more agreeable, calmer, and got along better with each other. My husband and I even got to go on a date where we ate antelope for dinner and got to see the Boston Pops play here in Kentucky. I'll forever be able to say that I saw "America's Symphony" play Bohemian Rhapsody, accompanied by a 350+ member choir. Who head-banged. 

I was feeling pretty good about myself, my family, and thought that I was setting myself up well for the rest of the semester. My grading was done, my classes planned, my family happy; it felt good. Of course, it lasted about three hours. First, my 2-year-old son got sick. Then, my 4-year-old got sick. And the, I got sick. And not just a little sick. Washing machine continuously running sick. 

I'll leave it at that. 

I had to cancel classes on Monday because I physically couldn't make it. I was particularly troubled because it was supposed to be the first of the peer-driven class' presentations. The high-school/dual credit teachers I am mentoring had to also enter in mid-term grades, and of course there were any number of technical problems that prevented them for doing in on time. I was in no condition to be able to help them. My house is a disaster again. My husband, who was sparred the virus, is a wreck because has had to take care of everyone, leading to severe sleep deprivation. 

So, we're right back where we started, through no fault of our own. My teaching is in disarray (or at least it feels that way). My kids are out of sorts. My husband and I get to see each other fleetingly between clean-ups and running to class/work. I still have a conference presentation to write and an essay, and because I am still recovering, I barely have enough energy to teach let alone write academic prose (I said academic prose; there's always energy for blogging).

But there are bright sides. My 2yo son now asks all the time if he can help me. My daughter, even when she was sick, didn't get nearly as worked up as she has in the past. So I have to take a deep breath and accept the good with the bad. It's not the end of the world that my peer-driven class will be starting a class late; I had an extra class at the end worked in there just in case. And, my under-preparedness lead to a pretty fruitful discussion about grading and motivation in my classes today. 

I just wish I could go back to Saturday night, when all was well with the world and I felt like I finally had a handle on things. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Write. A lot.

I blog here three times a week. I write about a paper a month for my academic career (either conference presentation or an article to be submitted to a journal/collection). I write the odd guest post or Views piece for Inside Higher Ed. I write a monthly piece for the University of Venus. I write emails. I comment on blogs, opinion pieces, and news stories. I write on Facebook and I Tweet. 

I write. A lot. 

I got an email from a colleague, asking me how I manage to write so much. To me, it's easy. I just do it. 

I've always been a prolific communicator. I can talk up a storm (my husband, after more than ten years together, still marvels at my ability to just keep talking). My years spent swimming was essentially one long opportunity for an internal narrative; I was writing in my head, constantly. I have boxes and boxes of writing from high school and college, mostly informal. I chose writing as my first profession because I love it. I think one of the reasons I became an academic was because being a professional writer (in my mind) wouldn't let me write enough. The thought of writing a 200-300 page dissertation didn't scare me; in fact, it was the most exciting part of my PhD. 

I used to keep an extensive diary. I used to have terrible insomnia, my mind continually racing, unable to relax. This was even after being up since 5 AM, swimming for a total of 5-6 hours, a full day of school, and some after-school activity, before swimming. Writing was one of the ways I could organize my thoughts, get them out of my head and on to paper. I would do it usually late at night when I should have been sleeping. Of course, that got difficult when I started sharing my life with someone. And, the insomnia went away after I had kids. I still have some nights where I can't sleep, but not with the frequency or intensity as before. But, there was something missing. And what was missing was the writing. 

I still write to organize my thoughts, to get them out of my system. As much as my posts are often reflection, writing for an audience forces me to at least make some coherent sense of the multiple strains of thought running through my head. Take, for example, writing about teaching. I just really write what I am thinking about my class. It forces me to actually reflect on what's going on, rather than spinning it endlessly in my head (or pretending that it never happened). While I don't have to worry so much about it being "polished" I do at least want to make sure there is some cohesion to it. I'm a little ADD to be honest, which means I can get particularly obsessed with things (ironic, I know). Writing is a way for me to actually think it through (rather than simply obsess over it) and then once I hit publish, to let it go. It's actually quite cathartic. 

Friday's post, for example, on my supposed failures in one of my peer-driven classes. As soon as I posted it (in fact, by the time I had finished writing it), I knew that I was being too hard on myself, as many of the comments points out. But, if I hadn't written the post, put what I was feeling down "on paper" I would have probably carried around the guilt and frustration. Now, I'm fine (a really great long weekend with my family really helped with that). Writing, for me, is about finding balance in my life. If I don't write, I'm missing an important part of who I am and how I stay sane. It's always been this way. 

I really hope it always will be. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Plagiarism, Motivation, and Acceptance

I've written already that I need to work on accepting the strengths and limitations of each of my peer-driven learning classes. But this week has really tested my patience, my resolve, and my faith that this change in approach is really a good thing. 

My...less-enthusiastic class has been struggling. Their first paper was due on Monday. I realized during the drafting process that one of the reasons this class hasn't embraced the peer-driven concept is because they are insecure/unsure writers. The first day that they were supposed to have brought drafts to class for peer-review, only three did. And this was after I forced them to go to the library to do research for their paper. Instead of sending them away, I was able to quickly find an available computer lab and take them their to actually write their draft (those three who brought a draft did the peer-review work by themselves). Turns out, the majority of the students did in fact have a draft but were too afraid to let anyone read it. I was able to work with each of them through their various issues and they came away from the class with a bit more confidence and a workable draft (or at least a better sense of how to get there).

I am a little ashamed to admit that I was feeling pretty proud of myself after that class. I was able to help the students rather give the knee-jerk reaction of simply dismissing them and their apparent lack of motivation. Sometimes, a good teacher needs to discern what the students want or need, even in a peer-driven setting. And I also knew that the direction we had initially set in the class probably needed to change. On Monday, when the entire class was there to hand in their essays, I announced that on Wednesday we would re-evaluate how we approach the rest of the semester. Did we still want to all work on the same topic, or would individual groups like to work individual topics of their choice? Did we still want to do group work? Did we still want to do projects? Be here on Wednesday if you want a say in the direction of the second-half of the semester.

A little less than half the class bothered to show up.  Now, I will give the less-than-half of the class that did show up credit. They came full of ideas and prepared to defend them. We sat down in a small circle and came up with a second-half plan (which closely resembles what the other class is doing right now). But, we are going to waste Monday's class forming groups for the other students who weren't there. 

And then, today, when I was grading their papers, I came across one of the most blatant case of plagiarism of my career. The student found a conference presentation on poverty and education online. It was even a Word document, so all the student did was take the first few pages of the presentation, double-space it, and stick her name on the top. The language was so obviously beyond the student's level, that it was the giveaway I needed. A simple Google search turned up the paper immediately. 

I don't know what to do. I make the course peer-driven, empower the students to make their own decisions about the direction of the education, and I still can't get better than 45% attendance. I told the students that if they didn't show up that others would make the decision for them. This saddens me, not just for the success of the class, but for the future of democracy; the students don't seem to care if someone else decides their future for them. And, I know all of the reasons why students plagiarize, but thought that I had managed to remove all of them. 

I don't know what else to do but accept that some students aren't motivated. Or that there are many, many factors that I can't control. Then, why continue with peer-driven learning? Why put up with the stress and the added work if more than half the students don't even care one way or the other what they learn or how? 

Even writing that, I know why. 

It's just this week has been really, really hard. I'm still working on acceptance. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Work-Life Balance: Some New Rules

In case it wasn't clear from my last post, our family has been having some work-life balance issues. I was incredible moved by how the post seemed to resonate with many other academic couples/parents. It's a constant process of negotiation, re-evaluation, and compromise for many of us. I'm not sure if it reassures me to know that our family is not alone in our struggles or saddens and angers me to know that there so many of us sacrificing so much for an academic job. 

The point of this post is to outline some of the ways I am trying to achieve some sort of a balance in my professional life and family. It's especially challenging because I am not on the tenure-track while my husband is. His conference trips are fully funded, mine are not. He has a list a mile long of administrative responsibilities, I don't. How can you achieve balance, when one member of the academic couple clearly has a number of advantages (funding) and disadvantages (administrative responsibilities)?

The first thing I did was to jump on the first chance I had to increase my amount of travel/professional development funds. I agreed to mentor high school English teachers who are teaching in our dual-credit program in exchange for a generous amount of money for professional development. There is obviously a trade-off - the increased responsibilities add to my workload, but now I can go to a conference and not worry about if we can afford it or now. Last year, I had to cancel going to a THATcamp that I was really looking forward to because we couldn't afford it. This year, I have my own funds to tap into. 

And, I am not rushing home anymore if I don't have to. I'm not showing up the day of my presentation and leaving as soon as I can after it's over. I'm staying until the bitter end. I'm reconnecting with old colleagues and classmates, and hopefully meeting and creating new connections with people I only know virtually (or not at all). My kids are old enough (and my husband more than capable) of running this household for five days while I'm gone. If we are serious about one day finding a tenure-track job for me, then I have to do these things.

But that's my professional life. At home, I am almost forcibly scheduling time for all of us to spend together. We have a four-day weekend this weekend (Fall Break!) and while both my husband and I have a pile of grading to do in order to get our mid-term grades in on time, I'm making sure we take a day-trip together, without work intruding on us. Plus, more date nights for me and my husband. 

I'm trying to focus on the things I can change, including my own behavior and reactions. I know this sounds all very zen (and painfully obvious), but I have to give myself a break and give my husband a break. I have to remember to make the most of the time we do all have together, and the time we have apart. I'm going to keep blogging, because it's something I do for me. I guess I'm frustrated because I began this semester hoping we'd do better this time achieving a sort of a balance. 

It's always a work in progress. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Our Two-Headed Problem: A Letter to my Daughter

"Mommy, why does Daddy always have to go back to work after dinner and miss my bedtime? I want him to have a different job so he can be home."

This week, my husband, who is also an academic but who, unlike me, is on the tenure-track, was besieged by professional responsibilities: candidate dinners, night grad classes, faculty senate meetings, social gatherings that represent important opportunities to network and appear like a good member of the "community." To make up for the lost time, he woke up earlier than usual to go into work and prepare for class. Many weekends every semester, he is also away at conferences.

My daughter, who is four, was getting fed up, which lead to the quote above.

I want to tell her how lucky she is that her daddy has the job that he has, given the academic job market, heck the general job market. That not being an academic does not guarantee better hours; one of her classmate's dad is always on the road for his non-academic job. Another one of our friends is overseas in Afghanistan, leaving behind a wife and son only a little younger that she is. That daddy is home more nights than he is away is a gift we can give to her.

I want to tell her that all of the extra work that he does is, in part, because he has won external funding, increasing his work-load, but also increasing our take-home pay. That mommy and daddy are up to our eyeballs in debt because of all of the extra schooling we did to get where we are, and those bills have come due. All of our small luxuries (like going to McDonald's) come from mommy and daddy working hard to make sure he gets tenure and I get renewed year after year. 

I also want to tell her that her father and I have made every decision we could to try and maximize the amount of time we can spend together. I gave up a tenure-track job so our family could stay together. We live a block from campus so we don't waste time in the car driving to and from work. We could move to a bigger city, but we would sacrifice at least two hours a day in drive time. I know many, many other academics (and non-academics) who sacrifice even more than that. 

But I also want to tell her that, in that moment, I wished we both had different jobs. Jobs that didn't pay my husband twice as much as I am making, even though we have the same qualifications and essentially the same job. I wished we didn't have a job that requires us to work 60-80 hours a week just to fulfill the minimum requirements. I wish that my work wasn't what is pushed aside in the name of the quest for tenure. I wish I wasn't stuck with the entirety of the "second shift" of cooking and cleaning. I wish I wasn't also left all alone all those nights (and mornings) that my husband has to go back to work. I wish weekends could be weekends rather than a negotiation of who gets to go to their office to catch up and which four hours we'll get to spend all together as a family. 

But I also want to be a good role model for her, show that I don't resent my situation, or that I am settling. I don't want to raise the proverbial "snowflake" and shelter her from the harsh realities (which really aren't that harsh). But, I also need her, at that moment, to go to bed and get some much-needed sleep. I am overwhelmed in that moment by anger, shame, and fear, none of it directed at her, but all of it so powerful that I almost start to cry in front of her. 

"I know you miss your Daddy. I miss him, too. And every night isn't like this, you know that. And, you know that Mommy and Daddy work hard to make sure you and your brother have everything that you need. We both love you very much. Daddy will come up and give you a kiss goodnight when he comes home."

I come up later to find her curled up with a picture of her and her father, asleep. I go back downstairs to try and work on my own teaching prep, my own grading, my own research, alone. I am grateful for everything we have: our health, our house, our jobs, our family and friends. I just wish I had a little more time to enjoy it, together.

Addendum: After I finished writing this, I was completely emotionally drained. My two-year-old son woke up early from his nap and we were able to spend an hour together, snuggling in his bed, reading together. Sometimes all it takes is just an hour. I still stand by this post, but today I feel a lot better than yesterday. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

To Steve Jobs

I have to admit that I was really choked up by the news of Steve Jobs' death last night when I got on twitter just as the news was breaking. Which I was reading on my iPhone. And then I got on my MacBook (the last old-school white one I'll ever own) to read tributes, reactions, and watch the Fail Whale tell me that Twitter was over-capacity as we all took to social media to collectively mourn Jobs.

I was just old enough in 1984 to remember the first big Apple commercial that ran during the SuperBowl (although I think I probably saw it the next night during the evening news). It scared the crap out of me, but there you go. I had never seen a commercial like it. We didn't own an Apple (we had a Vic 20 and a Commodore 64), but in what would be junior high, one of my best friends and I would stay up until 3 AM writing our own scripts for our favorite TV shows on her Apple computer (I have no idea which one it would have been. It was around 1990-91). 

I was late coming to Mac computers myself. I owned PCs, unfortunately, but when Blue Screen of Death started appearing far too regularly, I got my first MacBook. I've been hooked ever since. I spent entirely too much money on a second generation iPod (the one that still had four buttons on top). When I opened the box, all I could think of was that it was the prettiest thing I had ever owned. Two things that Apple, under Jobs direction, did best: design and usability. I loved my iPod, and I loved having all of my 8000 songs all in one place. 

But it was perhaps one of George Lucas' cast-offs that, for me, is one of Jobs' greatest achievements: Pixar. If it wasn't for Jobs' belief in the little computer animation company that went on to create the Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, and other classics. My daughter was never into princess movies when she was really little, but she adored the Pixar movies. We all loved the Pixar movies. Her first full movie in the theaters was Toy Story 3, and we were able to have our first full family movie, little brother included, when we went to see Cars 2 (which, regrettably, wasn't Pixar's finest moment, but whatever). 

It is really my kids lives that will be and currently are being shaped by what Steve Jobs shepherded into the world. My daughter knew how to work my iPhone before she was 18 months old. She could find videos, her puzzle app, her number match app, Tap Tap Revenge...Neither of my kids understand why they can't just swipe their fingers across my computer screen to make it work. Their world, they ability to connect, to collaborate, and to learn really have the potential to be greatly changed by the inventions Apple brought to us. But, as Seth Godin said in his brief tribute, A Eulogy of Action
I can't compose a proper eulogy for Steve Jobs. There's too much to say, too many capable of saying it better than I ever could.
It's one thing to miss someone, to feel a void when they're gone. It's another to do something with their legacy, to honor them through your actions.
Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you're reading this on.
What are we going to do with it?
I think that's the real question now. What are we going to do with it? Steve Jobs did, in fact, change the world by putting tools in our hands that we never had access to before. Now, it's up to us to make this world a better place using them. I hope for my kids' sake that we do. Personally, I keep asking myself, how am I going to use these tools to help my students learn? I started this process through my peer-driven learning experiment, but I need to integrate this thinking into all of my courses. 

I honored Steve Jobs in my own way today, but reading my students the riot act, for not performing to my expectations, for not even attempting to achieve their best. I doubt it was anything close to his infamous tirades, but while I hate being negative and berating my students, it was nice to know that Steve would probably have approved.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Peer-Driven or Paternalism? It's all about the Process

My Basic Writers have turned in their narrative essays. And I am so thrilled with the results. While not perfect (and, really, what writing ever is?), the improvement was significant enough that they even noticed it when they compared their first draft(s) with their last draft. And, there were eight of them. 

Yes, that's right, we did eight drafts of this essay. Eight steps, to be precise. I won't go into all the gory details because inevitably I'll make someone mad because I either skipped an essential step or had a step that is contrary to an essential pedagogical approach. Regardless (see how I just skated over that?), the students who took the process seriously wrote stellar essays. 

This is the sort of "disruption" I enjoy, showing students that they can, indeed, write an excellent essay if they just give themselves the chance and take advantage of the resources that are available to them. And this is where the idea of peer-driven learning butts up against my good, old-fashioned maternalistic (or paternalistic) teaching style. Would these students have done the drafts if I hadn't essentially forced them to? They receive "homework" credit for doing the various drafts and taking the process seriously (not sure what the students who printed six copies of their essay and just labeled them the various draft names were thinking). 

But, they saw the results. They saw that they were able to write better essays, better than perhaps they thought they could. So, do I regret "forcing" them into the process? No. Do I wish there was a way where I didn't have to coerce them into it? Yup. And I'm sure there is a way, but it's hard, particularly with basic writers who often resent having to take a non-credit course to begin with. A non-credit course becomes the lowest priority on many of my students' list, making it an upward battle for me as an instructor. 

So, I use force, because, damn it, I do know better. I know what they need to do to become better writers. I'm not sure what I can do with this disconnect, between peer-driven learning facilitator and paternalistic teacher. Other than maybe admit it and keep trying to be better. Or, throw it out to you.

What do I do? 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Now You See It: Backward Thinking on Where Education Innovation Should Take Place

I'm in the process of re-reading Cathy Davidson's excellent book, Now You See It (here's my initial review). My Freshman Writing classes are done with Fahrenheit 451, and we're moving on to a more optimistic view of the future. This is (obviously) the first time I'm teaching this book, and it's going to be a challenge to come up with assignments both large and small to engage the students with the work. Not because it's a difficult book to engage with, but because it's new, and as Cathy Davidson points out, the new is hard.  

So much of the book resonates with me because I've actively sought jarring and unfamiliar experiences: I decided to not to attend an English university in my hometown on Montreal, instead choosing attend a smaller French university; I headed North and West to do my PhD; my first tenure-track job was at an HBCU (and as to why that's "strange," take a look at my picture). Even now, this Canadian city girl is in the middle of Appalachia. Every single one of these choices has forced me to confront my preconceptions and, as Cathy Davidson (and obviously others) points out, this disruption is essential to learning: "Learning is the constant disruption of an old pattern, a breakthrough that substitutes something new for something old. And then the process starts again" (5). 

(This, by the way, is going to be the "free write" discussion question I post to my students before we start any class discussion; how many of them have experienced that as a part of their education?)

I've always been restless. I need to feel like I'm moving forward, challenging myself, really learning. As much as I enjoyed my undergraduate experience, I knew that any job I took, any job that I was trained for, would bore me to tears, and that I hadn't really been challenged intellectually. Grad school, it seemed, held the promise of greater intellectual stimulation. But I am forever grateful for the Université de Sherbrooke for providing me with such a wonderful environment in which to learn. 

Sherbrooke started as a service city for a large and fertile farming area in south-eastern Quebec. The university itself, founded in 1954, in still one of the youngest free-standing universities in the province. All things considered, there was no reason why the university could or should evolve into one of the most innovative and dynamic universities in Canada. But it did. It's medical school, in 1987, moved to Problem-Based Learning, and now is cited as an example for other schools to follow. It's engineering school also works largely on a problem-based program. It always seemed strange to me that Sherbrooke was ranked in the "Medical-Doctoral" category (medical school notwithstanding) because the focus was so squarely on the undergraduate experience. 

My program was no exception. I was studying "professional writing" in English (yes, I went to a French university to study English). Our program was small, professionally oriented, but also one that responded not only to the needs of the job market, but also the needs of the students. We learned HTML and web design back in the mid-1990s. In an English program! I edited our small student newspaper, oversaw the birth of the online version (no longer available), and had lots of informal opportunities for translation. When a large group of students (from my year and others who were ahead of us) were voicing their displeasure about the program, I organized a meeting between the faculty and students to discuss the direction of the program. We were writing publicly in many of our classes before we even knew that's what we were doing.

I was lucky. While I was being "trained" so to speak for a profession (to be fair, multiple professions: journalist-editor-translator-web writer-technical writer), it was in an environment where we were free, in fact, encouraged to create our own jobs, our own profession. It was never hidden from us that, while jobs were almost a guarantee (this was during the tech boom), self-employment and being a freelancer was an attractive option. We were connected with alumni who had successfully gone off on their own. We were, as a small English program in a large French university, a community who worked together, took care of one another, and helped each other succeed. I loved that. 

I compare my undergraduate institution with the one that I am currently teaching at. The experience for my students couldn't be more different. And yet, this is a place where education should be on the cutting edge of innovation. The programs that most of our students major in (education, nursing, vet tech, engineering tech) are perfect for Problem-Based Learning and a more collaborative style. But, in a cruel irony, these are the programs that are most rigidly standardized and controlled by external (and internal) accrediting bodies. And in most of our other programs, we prepare students for urban, white collar jobs that just don't exist in our region. 

One expects cities to be the centers of innovation, but I think we need to look to rural colleges and schools for new ways to teach and learn. Scratch that, we need to liberate rural colleges and schools in order for them to better serve their students, providing for them an education that they can use in their communities, to improve their communities. But, we don't, in part because we assume that rural students are "less than" their urban (and urbane) counterparts. Those who can, leave. Those who stay...

This is, Cathy Davidson would say, an assumption that needs disrupting. Innovative, relevant, and enriching education can happen anywhere. Sherbrooke proves that. I want my students to prove that, too.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Perils of Going Paperless

I've been trying to go paperless this semester. Homework is done in the form of "blog posts" on Blackboard (I know, I know, lay off. Baby steps). Papers are submitted electronically. Free writes have been replaced with discussion board questions. I've embraced (or at least I've tried to embrace) electronic interaction. 

But (and, from the title, you knew there'd be a but), it has had it's problems. The first one is that we're almost halfway through the semester and I know only a few of my students' names. I've admitted to this shortcoming before, but now that I don't hand back work to them on a daily basis, I've lost one of the only ways I had to really put names to faces. Now, this is a terrible thing to admit (sorry any of my students who might happen to be reading this). But I wasn't prepared for this consequence of going paperless. Now, I'm struggling with my picture roster, and frantically searching for Prof Hacker posts on the subject. It's not too late, right? 

Another unexpected side-effect of going paperless has been how my lectures have been effected. I teach one-hour periods. In the past, the students typically wrote 10 minute free-writes at the beginning of class, to get us all focused on the task at hand. Now, I've moved the question I would normally ask in the free write as either an online discussion question or a blog post question. This has been advantageous because I am able to read what the students are thinking and where they are in their understanding of the readings before I go into class. But, now my classes seem to finish 10 minutes early, after 50 minutes. Like, when it ended all the other times when I would do the 10-minute free write. My internal teaching clock is still set to 50 minutes. 

Other problems have no been totally unforeseen. Many of my students comes from economically precarious situations, so their access to a reliable computer and internet connection can be... inconsistent. So students, at least for the first few weeks while they learned the lay of the land (where the computers are on campus and when they can access them), were often late getting work in, and I was spending a lot of time explaining (and re-explaining) how to access blackboard, and where tech support was on campus. 

But even when I tried to help my students by bringing them to the computer lab, I hit snags. Can you imagine computers that a) don't have Flash installed and b) won't let you install it? Yeah, neither could I. Until it happened and half my students couldn't complete what I had planned to do in class. Or how the computer in my classroom died and it wasn't fixed for two weeks, severely impacting my ability to put handouts up rather than printing and distributing them. While I appreciate that many of my students have limited access to technology, I get frustrated when we can't help them prepare for the late 20th century, let alone the 21st century. 

So, I'm still figuring this out. And, let me tell you, it's the unreliable technology (don't even get me started on Blackboard) that's really making it hard to keep doing it. And, yes, I know that using Wordpress, Google Docs, Twitter, are easier, more reliable, and more user friendly. Next semester. There's always next semester.

And, unless the students choose pictures of themselves as avatars, I still won't know their names. Wait, on second thought...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Motivating Students

I've had motivation on my mind, in part because of Wednesday's #FYCchat. But a chance conversation on Twitter really started the wheels in my head turning.

Everyone is motivated by different forces. My daughter was potty trained with the reward of M&Ms. My son absolutely refuses to go potty for any other reason than he wants to; no reward we have offered him can motivate him to go potty. Even in my peer-driven classes, I'm having two completely opposite experiences: one class has embraced the opportunity to learn what they wanted while the other hasn't seen it as an opportunity as much as a chore (or so it seems).

We want to master certain skills, like guitar (which, by the way, I never was able to. At all). And, one way or another, we award ourselves unofficial badges, based on which songs we can play. Anyone who plays an instrument knows which songs they aspire to play, and once they play those songs (and often for an audience) they move on to harder songs. I used to swim. I loved swimming for so many reasons, but I also aspired to achieve certain standards set by a external body. In any sport we practice, the idea is to improve, and we know much of the time who is better than we are and aspire to approach or surpass them.

As kids, we always knew who was good, better, and best at anything and everything, from spelling to handwriting to video games to running to everything. Kids know, as Cathy Davidson points out. Taking grades, or badges, or ranking, or anything else isn't going to change. The trick is to then offer kids recognition for what they can do. As much as the people who put together Wikipedia did so for free they also knew that people would read their work, use their work, recognize their work. Super-contributers receive recognition for their contribution, even in a minor way. We might be self-motivated, but it always feels good to receive recognition.

Take my blogging. I started blogging because I love to write and talking about teaching, writing, and higher education. But I'll tell you, I always had an audience in mind, and it feels good that I'm receiving recognition for what I already love to do. Maybe this is because I've been "trained" to want rewards. I don't know, but I spent 13 years swimming competitively even though for the last half, I knew there wasn't any chance of making the Olympics. So, where was my motivation? My rewards were smaller, but no less significant to me. Each of use has looks to be rewarded in different ways.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's #FYCchat because these questions don't have any easy answers. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: The Power of Play and Wasting Time

As a follow up to my last post on encouraging play, and the subsequent #FYCchat, I'm thinking about the groups in my peer-driven learning class that have been the most "creative" in their project ideas. One of the worries that was expressed during the chat on Wednesday was that when we encourage creativity and play, it looks too much to the outside observer that we're not "doing" or accomplishing anything. Or, that we're wasting time. 

I've written about this issue before, what my "job" as a teacher actually looks like in practice: Coach? Editor? Maternal Figure? All of the above? None of the above? And when I started this peer-driven learning project, I had to once again radically reconfigure what a teacher does. And, a lot of the time, to an outside observer, it looks like nothing much. In fact, if one was to walk into my classroom, they might assume that none of us, myself or the students, are doing much of anything at all.

One particular group of students, a really good group, was killing time the other day during class time. They had their direction, decided on individual assignments for the rest of the week, and were just hanging out together. They weren't being disruptive, as the whole class is typically a fairly noisy affair, with groups working out their projects. But I knew they weren't "working." One of the students had his iPad out, and the others were looking at it, asking what certain apps do, how he liked using it, etc. Another group member saw the DC app, as in DC Comics. Thus began a discussion about how DC was rebooting their entire line of comics, with each super-hero starting all over again at Issue 1. And then, magic happened. This particular group is working on the broad subject of human nature, specifically examining the question of why people commit crimes/transgress laws. Could we, one offered, make a comic book? Within five minutes, they had found an affordable ($2) app allows you to modify photos to looks like a comic book. The group decided, they were going to make a comic book. 

I was thrilled. Thinking about it, though, this idea might never have occurred if the students hadn't been given the time and the freedom to simply sit around and talk. I know that it helped that I encouraged them to think of different ways they could present their materials, but the idea of the comic book might never have come about had the students not had the time and space to just relax and talk things out. I know that I'm being redundant in this paragraph, but to most, what I let them do is tantamount to misconduct or negligence in my role as their teacher. Instead, they're creating something really interesting. 

Another group, on their own, decided that they were going to use Facebook to communicate and collaborate with each other. As one of the students put it, I'm on it almost all the time playing. Not any more, I exclaimed! Once again, the line between working and playing is blurred; the students are now working in a virtual space that many see as a waste of students' time and a massive distraction, a place where they go to socialize (at best) or gossip (at worst). It made me realize that perhaps I should start using Facebook to better communicate with my students. 

Time. If we want our students to be more creative and playful, we need to give them more time. The pressure of deadlines, the limited resources, the overwhelming amount of work students often are faced with, all of that acts to create students who actively work to avoid thinking about their school work. My students are actually pretty relaxed, loose, and dare I say it, enjoying their experience in class. All because I give them time. 

Even it looks, from the outside, like we're wasting it. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Forcing Students to Visit the Library

Today, with my Peer-Driven Learning class that is less self-motivated than the other, we went to the library. The class decided that we were going to get our "required essay" out of the way first. The required essay needs to be "an analytical essay that connects multiple texts across disciplines" (to quote our Gen. Ed. Student Learning Outcomes requirement). We are still working on the broad topic of "Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class" and we've been brainstorming ideas as to what to write about. But, the essay requires multiple sources from across disciplines, and I knew that this wasn't going to happen without some help.

So I assigned a short annotated bibliography. I know, this is old-school me assign/they do format that we are trying to avoid, but I am so glad that I am requiring this particular mini-assignment. The annotated bibliography is due Friday, and we met today in the library to do research. Keep in mind that this is a 200-level course and most of the students are Sophomores. About halfway through the class, one of the students came up to me and asked if she was able to check out a book and if so, how to go about doing it.

Oh dear. This lead to some very interesting conversations on Twitter about how my experience is not unique. 

In each of my classes I stress how important it is to physically go to the library to do their research. I also mention that their tuition pays the salary of the reference librarians who are there to help them do their research more efficiently and effectively. In the same way that I am a "trained" expert and thus hired to be their teacher, the reference librarians all have Master's degrees in Library Science; they are also "trained" experts hired to help us do research. Their jobs, their raison d'etre is to help you do research. Why else do you  a) get a Master's in Library Science and b) go work at a primarily undergraduate university library? 

But it also brings up a larger issue that I have been struggling with all semester with my peer-driven classes: how much can I "force" or require them to do? How do I find a balance between what they want to do versus what I know they need to (or at the very least should) do? The annotated bibliography was not their idea, but when I introduced the requirements for the essay, they were dumbfounded. Multiple sources? Across disciplines? Research? The library? 

When I typically assign annotated bibliographies, I ask for one book, two peer-reviewed articles, and then two other sources of any type. I expect a very brief (1-3 sentence) summary of their source and then a brief description of how they will use the source in their paper. I think in a class of less-than-motivated students, this can be an effective tool to help them refine their topic and start to move in the right direction. And I'm curious to see how much guidance my other peer-driven class is going to need when we get to that stage later in the semester (they wanted to save theirs for last). 

Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience today, having students unable to find books on the shelves or know that the books could be checked out. But, like I expect my students to do, I learn and I adapt. And I readjust my expectations. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Encouraging Creativity and Play

This week, one of my peer-driven classes was finishing up their project proposals. They will be responsible for teaching two classes, which includes presenting a project that they will then hand in (this is a writing class, so they have to hand in something that is written). As I was going around the class, listening as their brainstorms were beginning to coalesce into a more solid proposal, I kept hearing something that troubled me: powerpoint. Four our of the five groups were planning to use powerpoint in their lessons. 

A shook my head. Do you like, I ask, when your professor uses powerpoint? Most of them shook their head. What happens when a powerpoint presentation starts? They answered that they tuned out, only focused on what was on the slide and only planned to learn what was on the slide. Then WHY would you want to recreate that in your own lessons? Blank stares. It's what we're used to, some answered. Because it's easy, others added. 

The students in this class have four weeks to prepare for their presentations. I sincerely hope that they didn't think that they would be spending four weeks on a powerpoint. But it shows how set in our ways we all are when it comes to just about everything. Students want to learn differently, but when presented with the opportunity to create a different learning experience, they chose the same old, ineffective tools. In my other class, when invited to explore options for their class assignment, most students didn't even look at the options I provided for them. 

This inspired me to tweet out to a peer of mine, Kathi Inman (check out her blog/site for her class at USC; this is thinking differently about education). Below is our conversation on Twitter:

Ok, it's a little truncated, but it really did make me think. How do I encourage students to play and explore, and thus find the space to be creative in my class? Should I have perhaps required them to find an example of innovative pedagogy/project themselves, rather than provide it for them? There's still time to do that in my other class, where we are doing projects at the end of the semester. But it also makes me think about whether or not I'm doing enough in my own practice, in my own classroom to facilitate play.

In other words, should I require play in a peer-driven classroom? It becomes difficult for me to think about what I should or should not require of students. I have said over and over again that they are allowed to do just about anything they want to, but it seems like they either don't believe me or have no idea just how creative and free they can be. It feels like I'm splitting hairs, but this is what it takes to make a class like this really work. 

I'm not the only one asking these questions, obviously. Kathi is experimenting with this (see the coding project her students are doing). Dr. Davis is using art and design as a basis for getting her students to think differently about what skills they will need in the future. The 2010 HASTAC Digital Media and Learning competition was based around games (scroll to the bottom). Over at DML Central, they are looking at making education more like Kindergarten for life; more making, tinkering, and remixing. Also, projects are a more creative way to learn, as well as more relevant to what future employers want. 

I'm still working through these issues. How do I introduce these concepts and options to my students without taking the classroom back over from them? There are so many rich and varied examples out there. Here are just a few:

Even just going through this list of fantastic and innovative projects, put together by a group of inspiring education and artists, I feel overwhelmed. And then I remind myself: think about how your students must feel. 

The list goes on. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Efficiency =/= Innovation =/= Quality

I'm going off my blogging schedule. This might turn into a longer, more developed post for uvenus or elsewhere, but I need to write this and put this out there right now. While I'm angry. And reeling. 

Today on Inside Higher Ed, there was yet another post about disrupting higher education. Earlier today, I ran into a colleague who had spent the morning in another department, collaborating. "It's the theme of my semester" she exclaimed excitedly. I sighed. I would love to be more collaborative, more innovative in my teaching. But, I don't have the time. 

Professors are currently being (excuse my language) shit on for being luddites, inefficient, and unwilling to change. I represent the most "efficient" part of higher education; the non-TT instructor who teaches a lot of sections of a large course (not as large as some, but still pretty big considering I'm supposed to be teaching writing). I have limited professional development opportunities/funding (which is better than none at all, which is what many people in my position have access to). I teach five classes. 

I'm efficient. I've figured out how to efficiently grade 100-150 papers, multiple times a semester. That also means that I have to sacrifice quality. This is, obviously, a dangerous thing to admit. We're told we need to be more collaborative. But, when? All the free time that I have when I'm not teaching, preparing to teach, or grading? I've innovated one of my classes this semester, and I have to admit, my other classes have suffered as a result; they are more standard, more "canned" than I would like. Why? Because I don't have as much time to devote to them. But I'm efficient (even if the technology isn't). I'm just not very innovative and I know the quality isn't what it could be.

I want to use technology, but when I do, I find that it fails because the institution doesn't invest in the support needed to help me and my students. Pens and paper never fail. Last week, I couldn't do an activity with the students because the computers in the lab didn't have FlashPlayer (seriously) and wouldn't let anyone install it. "Innovation" is thrown about as a buzz word, and there are software packages being purchased and then "introduced" to us every day. But when do we have the time to learn about them and integrate them into our classes? For example, we upgraded to a new Blackboard version this year. When was it available? A week before the semester started. 

This semester, I haven't had time to breathe. If this semester has taught me anything, it's don't try to change what works because it's exhausting, thankless, and ultimately difficult to measure (which is of course what everyone wants). The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But, what if you decide to change what works? I was a good teacher before, why am I reinventing the wheel? There are few incentives, but also few rewards for changing how we teach. There's no time to slow down and think. 

I want to cry. I'm the model that apparently everyone in higher education wants to recreated: large classes, lots of section, canned delivery. Why? Why do we want to do that? I don't even want to do that. I don't want to be the model that higher education re-creates en masse, like McDonald's. Trillions served the same unhealthy meal, the same way. Sure, we all get to eat for cheap, but at what cost? 

What the hell are education reformers thinking? Innovation is expensive and time consuming. You fail more often than you succeed. But in this world, there is no room for failure. Efficiency is only good if quality doesn't decline. But what if the quality isn't where it could be? We're stuck in a death spiral when it comes to talking about education reform. I'm sick of it. So should you. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Admitting I'm Wrong

As someone who writes about literature (and pop-culture!), I know the value of re-reading (and re-reading and re-reading again). I've always been this way; any book or tv episode or movie that I love are often revisited time and time again. Sometimes it's because they provide comfort or familiarity during a time of crisis or volatility (hello, Muppet Movie, Star Wars, or Almost Famous!) or because they are so rich that they demand more than one kick at the can. But even now, I can still be surprised by what I have missed in works that I thought I was thoroughly familiar with.

I was re-reading (and re-reading) Nalo Hopkinson's short story collection Skin Folk for an essay I'm writing (the postcolonial body, in case anyone was interested). Anyway, in one story, "A Habit of Waste," the protagonist (a young woman of Afro-Caribbean descent living in Toronto) is revealed to have bought a new body, a thin white one. I highly recommend this story for anyone interested in the intersection of race, gender, and postcoloniality, and the story became the central part of my analysis for the whole collection.

As I was writing the essay (after having read the story at least fifty times), I noticed something I hadn't picked up before in all my other readings: the body that the protagonist buys is called a "Diana" type. Why had I not ever seen this before? Diana? Princess Diana? The remnants of the monarchy? The fairy-tale princess? In a story involving not one, but two Commonwealth countries in a postcolonial setting? Really? How did I not see this before? Suddenly, I was researching the image of Princess Di, how she is interpreted, etc (there was a Journal of British Studies issue devoted to her, among the hundreds of other peer-reviewed articles dealing with her image, legacy, etc). And now I had a whole new avenue to write about in this essay (which meant I had to sacrifice some of the other things I had planned to write about).

This week, in my FYC class, we are talking about the great dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. I wrote my MA thesis on dystopias, so I've been reading (and rereading) this book for over ten years. I've taught it in various classes at least ten times. And this week, during our discussion about the book and why the world Bradbury creates I realized something I never had before; Bradbury wasn't just making a point about books and education (the three things we need are things that have depth, time to think about them, and the right to act on what we've learned), but it is also about how society has fragmented, with people cut off from each other. Montag finds the strength to act when he connects first with Clarisse, then with Faber, and finally with Granger and the band of nomads. How had I not seen this before?

Of course, I didn't call attention to my revelation, simply including it as part of the discussion. Maybe I should have. Anyone who teaches knows that it's almost impossible to get students to read, let alone re-read anything we assign. The worst is when students ask me if they have to read something because they read it in high school already. I think I was afraid to say, hey, I just noticed this, because it might appear like I wasn't prepared or I didn't know what I was talking about. I could have let me students see my own learning process, a process that didn't end...ever. So many students, heck, people now decide on something (for whatever reason) and desperately cling to those conclusions. I need to remember to show my students that I am open to noticing and learning new things, that I am often wrong and that's ok.

As a young, non-tenure-track female faculty member, I often feel the pressure to make sure that my authority and expertise are unquestionable. But, they aren't. I'm often wrong, and I am open to learning from my mistakes, open to sudden epiphanies, open to changing my mind. That I was afraid to share those moments with my students when they happen isn't something I am proud of. This is one area where I need to work on being the baddest Bed Female Academic I can be. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: I'm No Cathy Davidson

I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post: 
I've read Cathy's piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called 'anti-university' set up in London in the late '60s-- I have a few questions that I'd need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the 'market').The type of class isn't clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical 'fig leaf' to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?
I've been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson's classes.  I could point "anonymous" to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I've told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.

There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson's course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more "traditional"; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It's early, but each class is having some good results.

My students didn't "chose" to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don't have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can't say I'm terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.

I don't have a ton of experience being an "innovative educator" nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn't met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I'd say it's a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I'm starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I'm still learning to let go and embrace all of this.

My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are "by the book" both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.

Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don't know. I'm not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I'm getting there. I've said time and time again that it's my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can't measure that.

I'm not sure if I want to.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Retention, or When a Student Disappears

As any reader of this blog knows, I teach Developmental Writing (some excellent posts from my archives linked right there, folks). These are, studies have shown, some of the most vulnerable students in higher education; the statistics show that these students typically drop out and never finish a degree of any kind. I work at an institution that has dismal completion rates. With public pressure mounting, we are becoming more and more aware of the issue of retention. More and more, the pressure to "retain" students is trickling down to the individual instructors. 

Anyone who has been following me knows that I care about my students, perhaps too much. Does this mean that I am perfect when it comes to doing everything and anything I can to "retain" students? Not in the least, but I'd like to think that I am there for students who are ready and willing to help themselves. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. But for all of our efforts, additional services, councilors, tutors, advisors, and financial aid options, students, good students, still disappear. 

Last semester, I had a pretty good student in my 200-level writing class. Not the best student, but a solid student who was willing to do the work, ask questions, think, and improve. She also happened to live just in behind our house. We would often see each other on weekends or in the evenings when I would be playing outside with my kids. I got to know her a little bit. She was from out of state, wanted to be a nurse, spent her summers on Christian missions, had a job working back home as a waitress, and was generally a good person. She was planning on living in the same place this year. I even contacted her over the summer to let her know that the windows of her back door had been broken. She got back to me to thank me and told me she was looking forward to seeing me in the fall.

Fall has come, and we're three weeks into the semester. I have not seen her. I have no idea why she's not back. Did she run out of money? Did something happen to her, or her family? Did she transfer? None of these things matter in the grand scheme of things, at least to those who do the counting; she has dropped out, thus hurting our "completion rates." But how do we plan for students like this, students who seem to be most prepared to succeed in college? Our university has a high rate of first-generation and poor students and most of our resources are focused on their success. We, on the ground, know how hard it is to get students to understand the importance of attending class, of making university their top priority, when their families are pressuring them to work or take time off to support those back home. When a student who seems well-equipped to succeed and then doesn't, what could we have done differently? 

I teach five section of writing-intensive courses. I have trouble learning my students' names, but I do try to get to know each of them as well as I can, but often its the ones who are having the most difficulty that I get to know the best. When a student who was doing well disappears, it's difficult for me because I wonder if we were set up to help her succeed. I despair: if we can't even hold on to the solid student, what hope do the rest have? I know that people look at a school like ours and point to it saying that we are wasting taxpayer money, that we're failing at our jobs, and that we need to be held "accountable." 

I'm not really sure how much more I can do. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Accepting Where We Are

This week in my peer-driven classes was amazing. We finally put in concrete terms what was going to be expected of them during the semester. We decided what our major and minor assignments would be and how much of their final grade each part would be worth (yes, we decided to go with good, old-fashioned grades, awarded by me. One class pointed out that they didn't want the responsibility and the other saw it as too time consuming).

Each class is going to be completely different. The first class (the class that is less self-motivated and less vocal) will run in a much more conventional way. We decided to get our "required" paper (the essay that all students must write) out of the way first. In preparation, we will read the section of our textbook on "Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class." We will decide collectively which readings we will do for homework and what sort of discussion questions we should address. Homework in this class will be worth 50% of their final grade, as an incentive to stay on task. Once we have completed this section and the required paper, we will move towards being a little more non-traditional in preparation for a final "project," which can be done in groups.

The other class more closely to what Cathy Davidson imagines for her next peer-driven class. The students are already in groups (with one exception; the class decided that they wouldn't force anyone to be in a group, so there is one student working solo), working on different sections of the textbook that they found the most interesting. Each group will come up with a proposal for a two-class lesson plan and project on their section. Once the proposals are approved, they will work on their lesson plan and project. Each group gets two classes to teach/present, with the rest of the class expected to read and participate. Once that is done, we will move on to working on our "required" paper, our final task. This class also decided to put together a rather draconian attendance policy because, as one student put it, how can this class be peer-driven if you're not here?

I was so proud of my students. They recognized their strengths and their weaknesses, developing a class that met their needs. One class wanted more from me as their instructor, the other class, not so much. While they were intrigued by the idea of contract grading, at the end of the day, this class as a concept was radical enough; it seemed they wanted the familiar comfort of grades, as something to hold on to. I can't say that I minded; it gives me something to hold on to as well, some remnants of "control."

I realized that we hadn't discussed a rubric or "scoring" guide in my second class. This worked out well, as we were going to be discussing rubrics during our weekly #FYCchat. As the chat progressed (check out the archive here), it became clear that we were of two very different minds about rubrics; some of us swore by them, while others shunned them as one more way we limit students' creativity. I panicked; what had I done? I communicated with the students that we might want to develop a rubric. But clearly this wasn't a concern of theirs. What if they were going to do one just because I had suggested it? Was I in the process of messing with a good thing?

And then the concept of badges (again from Cathy Davidson) did the rounds on Twitter. Why wasn't my class using badges? Why were we using grades at all? My panic increased. The students decided, I said, but what if the students really didn't decide, and they were just doing what was comfortable, or worse, what they thought I wanted them to do. Did I not present the concept well enough for them to feel comfortable with it? Am I still being too traditional, conventional? Was I failing my students? I'm not requiring them to put together a digital project or use social media. Should I? Am I doing enough to push my students outside of their comfort zones?

I could no longer see the success of my class, only all of the ways it could (already) be interpreted as a failure.

My students were able to accept where they were in terms of their comfort level with a peer-driven learning environment. One class needs more guidance than the other. I need to accept that my own level with peer-driven learning as their teacher is also evolving. I need to accept where I am just as much as they have accepted where they are. This is a learning process for all of us. In the same way that I try to provide positive support, encouragement, and patience to my students, I need to do the same for myself.

This will not be perfect. There will always be thing that get left out, left behind, and things that could be done differently. In a peer-driven learning environment, I have to trust that the direction my students have chosen to take is the right one. I also have to trust that I am doing my best as well.

Another way that this class is the most challenging thing I have ever done.

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