I usually do “first day fragments” to mark the start of the fall semester, but here on the first day of the spring term I find that I also have a few topics rattling around that are also worth exploring. Only time will tell whether this is a one-off or a new spring-semester routine.
Course design is an exercise in omission. And the more of a survey the course is designed to be, the more this truism cuts close to the truth. This has been on my mind over the last week while preparing for the upcoming semester. Even before the pandemic I had begun adopting a “less is more” mantra in the classroom, and doubling down on core questions and fundamental skills. But I also like big and open-ended questions, both to structure the course and to set as assignment prompts.
This semester I will be teaching upper-division survey courses on Ancient Rome (Romulus to Romulus Augustulus, in theory), Ancient Persia (Achaemenid to Sassanid), and then a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. Enormous topics, all.
Adding material to these courses is the easy part. It would be easy, for instance, to have the students read Beowulf and Le Morte d’Arthur, skip forward to Lord of the Rings, and then do something contemporary. Or just watch the movies. Or I could have decided that we’re going to do an entire course on the thousands of pages in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty novels. But neither of these options fit with my objectives for the course.
The challenge is finding the right balance. The entire extent of Tolkien that we are going to read will be “On Hobbits” and two short pieces of commentary about Rings of Power. We’ll read Ken Liu’s brilliant short story “Paper Menagerie,” but nothing from his longer works. Ditto for N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” which I’m using both as a counterpoint to Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and and as a way to close the semester on a note of optimism after an emotionally challenging set of readings.
All three of my courses this semester are new preps. This is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, new preps make for a lot of work. They require compiling materials as you go through the semester, writing presentation slides, and deciding on how you want to present the material, even when approaching topics that you know well. Some of the activities are going to flop, or maybe the scope of the course needs to be changed. The course wobbles a little, because it has not yet settled into its foundations. A graduate school professor told me once that he believes a course only reaches its mature form in its third iteration.
On the other hand, I sometimes find that certain in-class activities and readings work best the first time I assign them. This is in part because I am forced to spend more time with the readings and preparing the activities, which means that everything is fresher, but I also find something magic in the thrill of invention. The second and third time through I can adjust to how the students experienced the assignment, but this comes at a cost when the assignment becomes somewhat calcified or the pathways that the course discussion become a little more worn in.
People have been talking on Twitter about when professors have an obligation to post the syllabus. My only thought is that the syllabus will go up when it is ready and the course website is minimally ready for use, usually a day or two before the semester starts. I’m happy to answer questions even when the syllabus is in the design phase, but there are a myriad of reasons why it is good to take right up until the last minute making changes even if the basic structure has been set for weeks.
Most of my courses are what my university calls “Writing Enhanced,” which means that they fulfill the standards of that program—emphasis on product, cognition, and process. Nearly twenty years ago when I was an undergraduate student, a writing-enhanced course required a certain number of pages, some of which had to be revised, but my guidance here is more flexible. I have another course design post (yes, I know that this is turning into a teaching-heavy blog) in mind for the near future that engages with the models we use when designing new courses, but, every semester, I have a momentary pang of concern that I’m not having my students write enough. For instance, I have never assigned a long 15–20+ page final paper. Instead, my students write multiple shorter papers (5–7 page) that they revise to a high standard, with the thinking that learning to polish a concise argument in a short paper is a prerequisite for writing a good longer paper when taking research classes. Besides, even without a long research paper to conclude the semester, my students write a lot. By my rough tally, I find that many of my students write nearly twice as much as I did for any class I took as an undergraduate student. Which then sends a flare of concern in the other direction: how much writing is too much?
I wrote about Chat-GPT last semester and stand by everything I wrote there. But the new semester has brought out another round of hand-wringing and panic about how this tool means for higher education. This semester I’ll be leaning into AI writing in some classes with an “AI-essay critique” exercise and otherwise just incorporating it into the conversations we have when we talk about writing. But as the topic du jour, I’m bored by the conversation now. Moral panics turn tedious in a hurry.
I submitted grades a little over a week ago and promptly withdrew, exhausted, into a little fort with curtain walls made of novels. At least that’s what it felt like. The specific details might be exaggerated.
Several times I tried to break through the fog that had settled over my mind, but succeeded only in producing a silly post about pizza TV shows and the weekly varia post that I start compiling as soon as the previous week’s goes up. I could barely think about the semester that had just ended, let alone put those thoughts into any sort of coherent discussion.
Simply put, I had an exceptionally difficult semester, and one that rates among the very toughest I have ever experienced. Some issues stemmed from causes external to my classes (e.g. not getting some much-needed rest this summer and early semester indexing and proofing a book manuscript that put me perpetually behind), while others stemmed from things that happened in the classes, most of which I don’t want to talk about in this space because I don’t like talking about specific student activity in a public forum even when identifying details have been redacted, especially when there is nothing of universal value that can be gleaned by doing so.
Not every problem stemmed from these issues, of course.
Dissatisfied with traditional forms of grading, I dove headlong into the world of Specifications Grading for most of my courses this semester. To stick with the metaphor, I liked these waters but they also sent me crashing into the rocks.
The formula varied a little bit, class by class, but, in general I came up with a system where the students earned credit across four or five categories of assignments (e.g. journal entries, small assignments/participation, papers). Every assignment was graded using a bespoke rubric and it either met the standard and thus earned credit, or it did not. More work, and higher quality essays (the essay rubric had two tiers, one for basic competency and another for advanced) earned higher grades. To meet these higher standards, I allotted virtual tokens that the students could use either to revise their papers or turn work in late, pegging the number of tokens to the number of papers.
I entered the semester thinking that I had worked out a reasonably simple system that would give students the agency to decide what grade they were aiming for, make my expectations for each grade level clear, and provide in-semester flexibility that would allow students to do their best work. However, I had not anticipated that putting these assignments and expectations up front in the course would lead to cognitive overload for a significant number of students. In fact, I had a conversation in the final week of class with a student who said that this semester was much harder than the course they had taken the semester before even though the workload in the two courses was identical except that I had swapped one short weekly assignment for another. While there are other explanations why this student might have struggled with my course, I’m inclined to take the sentiment at face value because I saw evidence of the same struggle from other students who were struggling to interface with the information that I had provided in a way that made it harder to complete the work itself.
The core of this problem, I think is that many students were used to traditional grading schemes that allow students to muddle through to a passing grade without too much effort. By contrast, the system I devised required students to complete assignments in each category to a specified level in order to earn the grade. Passing my general education courses last semester did not require too much work, unless you simply neglected a graded category.
I am treating this as a messaging problem for now. Traditional grading schemes remain stupid and I’m not ready to abandon my attempt to find something better just yet.
However, the issue of students neglecting grade categories dovetailed with the tokens and flexible deadlines to create absolute chaos on my end. Here there were several intertwined issues.
Several semesters ago I developed a system for deadlines where students could receive an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before the due date. This policy has proven incredibly popular with my students. However, while I intend to keep it intact in some form, I am starting to question whether the system is having the intended effect. Rather than providing students the space to do their best work, I am finding that whatever grace I provide is filled by other classes with stricter deadlines such that my students wind up writing their papers at the last minute anyway, just several days later, and I had so many students taking the extension that it became a challenge to return papers in a timely fashion.
However, it was the tokens that turned this semester into a logistical nightmare. I set up the tokens anticipating that most would be used for revisions, knowing full well that revisions coming in at any point would cause some chaos. What I did not anticipate is that some portion of students would use most or all of their tokens to turn work in late. This meant that I had not only revisions, but also new work being turned in on no particular schedule throughout the semester, and I had difficulty keeping tabs on students who hadn’t turned in assignments, some of whom I knew were working on things and some of whom I did not.
Compounding these issues was, I think, a consequence of having a significant number of first year students. Anecdotally, from talking with friends who teach in high school, some students have been conditioned to think that flexible deadlines and the like mean that an assignment is optional. Or that whatever make-up assignment gets offered will be easier than the original assignment. As one explained:
“I’ll allow X to be redone/revised/resubmitted” is increasingly being taken as “I don’t need to do X, I’ll do the makeup Y later which will be easier anyway.”
This was obviously not what had been intended, but this collision of expectations and conditioning meant that I spent a significant amount of time amid the chaos of trying to grade everything just trying to track down missing work so that the students wouldn’t fail on those grounds. Oh, and I had 50% more students than I had in either semester last year.
Then there was the grading itself. I adopted a specifications system because it promised to offload some portion of the grading onto explicit rubrics where I could check the appropriate box. I loved not assigning grades to papers, but I quickly discovered several things that meant the system created just as much work as the mystery black box of traditional grading, if not more. The issues started because, I discovered, many students simply did not complete the assignments with the rubrics in mind and did not use the rubrics to check the work before submission. This meant that I often received work that did not fulfill the simplest rubrics.
These problems were particularly acute on the written assignments with its long, detailed rubric that should have provided guidance for the papers. I quickly realized that many of my students did not have the writing background to achieve the higher proficiencies, so simply checking the rubric box was not going to provide adequate guidance or encouragement. At the same time, while some students were not going to be aspiring to those grade tiers, I also couldn’t in good conscience provide detailed feedback for some students and not for others until the very end of the semester when the possibilities of revision had passed. By the last two weeks of the term it was clear that I would not be able to get caught up, so I offered that any student who wanted to revise their work could come to office hours and have their paper(s) marked in person so that they could receive feedback on how to meet the next tier. These meetings gave any student meant that (I think) any student aiming for higher grade tiers reached them, but they also meant that those weeks were a whirlwind of paper conferences.
Finally, my small assignments policy put a cherry on top of this disaster sundae.
The policy was simple. There were some number of small papers, in-class activities, exit-tickets, one-minute essays, and other activities that took place in class. If you weren’t there, you couldn’t make up the work. Unless you were an athlete at a competition. Or you got sick. Or had other “excused” absences. Right from the start, I found myself litigating what counts as a legitimate absence, which is one of my least favorite parts about taking attendance. Then, like with non-completion of work, I found myself around the middle of the semester worried about the number of students who seemed liable to fail (or otherwise drop grade tiers) because they had failed to adequately participate in the class. Since the opportunities for these points often did not come at regular intervals, I found myself inventing “optional extra” opportunities that would allow the students to bring their grade in that category up, which, in turn, created confusion about what assignments students actually needed to complete. Often, the students who completed the optional assignments were not the ones I had in mind when I created them. And, of course, adding all of these small assignments created a flurry of paperwork that I had to manage.
I should point out that for a non-negligible percentage of my students this system worked exactly as I envisioned, giving them agency to achieve grades based on their goals for the semester. Had I not felt compelled to give the students aiming for the “C” the same level of feedback I gave to those aiming for an “A,” my grading might have even been manageable—but, of course, almost everyone said that they were aiming for an “A” back in August.
I am not ready to abandon this grading mode, just yet, but it needs to be modified in critical ways for it to become sustainable and productive. The changes I have in mind to this point are:
Streamline my messaging and expectations. This means not only being clear about my expectations in terms of earning credit across multiple categories, but also clarifying that this is a labor-based grading scheme. It is designed to be transparent and achievable, but not necessarily easy. At the same time…
I want to submerge the mechanics of the participation grade. Some of the chaos this semester was created by the various points that students earned for doing in-class activities, which meant that this was something I had to track. I am not planning to change the activities that I do for small assignments, but my current thought for this category is to take a page out of the “ungrading” playbook. Instead of me assigning grading, the students will complete three reflections, one at the start, one at the middle, and one at the end of the term. The first one will set expectations and think about where they are at the start of the course. The middle two reflections will both have the students assign themselves a percentile grade for their own engagement with the course material. I will then plug the final percentile grade into a formula that adds or subtracts points based on attendance and maybe what percentage of small assignments they complete where perfect participation and attendance adds to score, a range results in no change, and excessive missed classes and activities results in lost points. I see a number of ways that this could go horribly wrong and I’m still working out the kinks, but it would also relieve the demand for me to track so many different assignments or create “optional” work.
I am going to rewrite the longer rubrics both to make them easier to follow and so that the students can explicitly use them as checklists. Similarly, I am going to print these rubrics and distribute them directly to my students.
Ditto for handouts on things like writing. I provide a lot of resources for the skills that I ask the students to master in these classes, but I find that even when directing students to them via presentation in front of the class, they are not being used because most students forget that they are there. I remember sticking handouts into my backpack never to be seen again, but at least having been handed a physical copy of something might help jog memories.
I am changing the token system. Tokens will only be used for turning in assignments late and probably limited to just 2, with a reward to the participation grade for every token left unused. Revision will be limited to the papers, but allowed for every paper, albeit probably with firmer deadlines for when a first round of revisions need to be complete.
Since none of this addresses how much time I spent responding to individual papers this semester, I am also likely going to lean more heavily on the language in the rubric and invite students looking to revise their papers to higher levels of achievement to come for conferences earlier in the semester.
Looking over these changes, there are still parts of this system I am concerned about. The ungrading formula, for instance, is an awkward beast to explain in the syllabus and it could lead to uncertainty about how the various non-paper assignments contribute to their grade. But I also think that there is a real possibility that these changes might be able to preserve what I liked about last semester while also steering into the sorts of written and metacognitive exercises that I find particularly valuable for students in a way that will make it a more sustainable and productive learning environment for everyone involved.