Specsitol: a semester reflection

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.

Chaos.

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.

What is “the college essay,” or ChatGPT in my classroom

Confession: I don’t know what is meant by “the college essay.”

This phrase has been the shorthand for a type of student writing deployed over the past few weeks in a discussion about the relationship between college classes and AI programs like ChatGPT-3 that launched in November, which I touched on in a Weekly Varia a few weeks ago. These programs produce a block of unique text that imitates the type of writing requested in response to a prompt. In its outline, input/output mimics what students do in response to prompts from their professors.

The launch of ChatGPT has led to an outpouring of commentary. Stephen Marche declared in The Atlantic that the college essay is dead and that humanists who fail to adjust to this technology will be committing soft suicide, which followed on from a post earlier this year by Mike Sharples declaring that this algorithm had produced a “graduate level” essay. I have also seen anecdotal accounts of professors who have caught students using ChatGPT to produce papers and concern about being able to process this as an honor code violation both because the technology is not addressed explicitly in the school’s regulation and because they lacked concrete evidence that it was used. (OpenAI is aware of these concerns, and one of their projects is to watermark generated text.) Some professors have suggested that this tool will give them no choice but to return to in-class, written tests that are rife with inequities.

But among these rounds of worry, I found myself returning to my initial confusion about the nature of “the college essay.” My confusion, I have decided, is that the phrase is an amorphous, if not totally empty, signifier that generally refers to whatever type of writing that a professor thinks his or her students should be able to produce. If Mike Sharples’ hyperbolic determination that the sample produced in his article is a “graduate level” essay is any guide, these standards can vary quite wildly.

For what it is worth, ChatGPT is pretty sure that the phrase refers to an admissions personal statement.

When I finished my PhD back in 2017, I decided that I would never assign an in-class test unless there was absolutely no other recourse (i.e. if someone above me demanded that I do so). Years of grading timed blue-book exams had convinced me that these exams were a mismatch for what history courses were claiming to teach, while a combination of weekly quizzes that the students could retake as many times as they want (if I’m asking the question, I think it is worth knowing) and take-home exams would align better with what I was looking to assess. This also matched with pedagogical commitment to writing across the curriculum. The quizzes provided accountability for the readings and attention to the course lectures, as well as one or more short answer questions that tasked the students with, basically, writing a thesis, while the exams had the students write two essays, one from each of two sets of questions that they were then allowed to revise. Together, these two types of assignments allowed the students to demonstrate both their mastery over the basic facts and details of the course material and the higher-order skills of synthesizing material into an argument.

My systems have changed in several significant ways since then, but the purpose of my assignments has not.

First, I have been moving away from quizzes. This change has been a concession to technology as much as anything. Since starting this system on Canvas, I moved to a job that uses Blackboard and I have not been able to find an easy system for grading short answer questions. I still find these quizzes a valuable component of my general education courses where they can consist entirely of true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, and other types of questions that are automatically graded. In upper-level courses where I found the short-answer questions to be the most valuable part of the assignment, by contrast, I am simply phasing them out.

Second, whether as a supplement to or in lieu of the quizzes, I have started assigning a weekly course journal. In this assignment, the students are tasked with choosing from a standard set of prompts (e.g. “what was the most interesting thing you learned this week,” “what was something that you didn’t understand this week form the course material? Work through the issue and see if you can understand it,” “what was something that you learned this week that changes something you previously wrote for this course?”) and then writing roughly a paragraph. I started assigning these journals in spring 2022 and they quickly became my favorite things to grade because they are a low-stakes writing assignment that give me a clear insight into what the students have learned from my class. Where the students are confused, I can also offer gentle guidance.

Third, I have stopped doing take-home exams. I realized at some point that, while take home exams were better than in-class exams, my students were still producing exam-ish essay answers and I was contributing to this problem in two ways. First, two essays was quite a lot of writing to complete well in the one week that I allotted for the exam. Second, by calling it an exam most students were treating it as only a marginal step away from the in class exam where one is assessed on whether they have the recall and in-the-moment agility to produce reasonable essays in a short period of time.

What if, I thought, I simply removed the exam title and spread the essays out over multiple paper assignments?

The papers I now assign actually use some of the same prompts that I used to assign on exams, which were big questions in the field the sort that you might see on a comprehensive exam, but I now focus on giving the students tools to analyze the readings and organize their thoughts into good essays. Writing, in other words, has become an explicit part of the assignment, and every paper is accompanied by a meta-cognitive reflection about the process.

Given this context, I was more sanguine about ChatGPT than most of the commentary I had seen, but, naturally, I was curious. After all, Sharples had declared that a piece of writing it produced was graduate level and Stephen Marche had assessed it lower, but still assigned it a B+. I would have marked the essay in question lower based on the writing (maybe a generous B-), and failed it for having invented a citation (especially for a graduate class!), but I would be on firmer footing for history papers of the sort that I grade, so I decided to run an experiment.

The first prompt I assigned is one that will, very likely, appear in some form or another in one of my classes next semester: “assess the causes underlying the collapse of the Roman Republic and identify the most important factor.” I am quite confident in assigning the AI a failing grade.

There were multiple issues with ChatGPT’s submission, but I did not expect the most obvious fault with the essay. The following text appeared near the end of the essay.

Vercingetorix’ victory was, I’m sure, quite a surprise for both him and Julius Caesar. If I had to guess, the AI conflated the fall of the Roman Republic with the fall of the Roman Empire, thus taking the talking points for the Empire and applying them to the names from the time of the Republic. After all, ChatGPT produces text by assembling words without understanding the meaning behind them. Then again, this conflation also appears in any number of think-pieces about the United States as Rome, too.

But beyond this particular howler, the produced text has several critical issues.

For one, “Internal conflict, economic troubles, and military defeats” are exceptionally broad categories each of which could make for a direction to take the paper, but together they become so generic as to obscure any attempt at a thesis. “It was complex” is a general truism about the past, not a satisfactory argument.

For another, the essay lacks adequate citations. In the first attempt, the AI produced only two “citations,” both listed at the end of the paper. As I tell my students, listing sources at the end isn’t the same thing as citing where you are getting the information. Upon some revision, the AI did manage to provide some in-text citations, but not nearly enough and not from anything I would have assigned for the class.

A second test, using a prompt I did assign based on Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, produced similarly egregious results. The essay had an uninspired, but a mostly adequate thesis, at least as a starting point, but then proceeded to use three secondary sources, none of which existed in the format that they were cited. Unless the substantial C.V. of the well-published scholar Sarah C. Chambers is missing a publication on a topic outside her central areas of research, she hasn’t argued what the paper claims she did.

A third test, about Hellenistic Judea, cited an irrelevant section of 1 Maccabees and a chapter in the Cambridge History of Judaism, albeit about Qumram and neither from the right volume nor with the right information for the citation. You get the idea.

None of these papers would have received a passing grade from me based on citations alone even before I switched to a specifications grading model. And that is before considering that the AI does even worse with metacognition, for obvious reasons.

In fact, if a student were to provide a quality essay produced by ChatGPT that was accurate, had a good thesis, and was properly cited, and then explained the process by which they produced the essay in their metacognitive component, I would give that student an A in a normal scheme or the highest marks in my specs system. Not only would such a task be quite hard given the current state of AI, but it would also require the student to know my course material well enough to identify any potential inaccuracies and have the attention to detail to make sure that the citations were correct, to say nothing of demonstrating the engagement through their reflection. I don’t mind students using tools except when those tools become crutches that get in the way of learning.

In a similar vein, I have no problem with students using citation generators except that most don’t realize that you shouldn’t put blind faith in the generator. You have to know both the citation style and the type of source you are citing well enough to edit whatever it gives you, which itself demonstrates your knowledge.

More inventive teachers than I have been suggesting creative approaches to integrating ChatGPT into the classroom as a producer of counterpoints or by giving students opportunities to critique its output, not unlike the exercise I did above. I have also seen the suggestion that it could be valuable for synthesizing complex ideas into digestible format, though this use I think loses something by treating a complex text as though it has only one possible meaning. It also produces a reasonable facsimile of discussion questions, though it struggles to answer them in a meaningful way.

I might dabble with some of these ideas, but I also find myself inclined to take my classes back to the basics. Not a return to timed, in-class tests, but doubling down on simple, basic ideas like opening student ideas to big, open-ended questions, carefully reading sources (especially primary sources) and talking about what they have to say, and how to articulate an interpretation of the past based on those sources–all the while being up front with the students about the purpose behind these assignments.

My lack of concern about ChatGPT at this point might reflect how far from the norm my assessment has strayed. I suspect that when people refer to “the college essay,” they’re thinking of the one-off, minimally-sourced essay that rewards superficial proficiency of the sort that I grew frustrated with. The type of assignment that favors expedience over process. In this sense, I find myself aligned with commentators who suggest that this disruption should be treated as an opportunity rather than an existential threat. To echo the title from a recent post at John Warner’s SubStack, “ChatGPT can’t kill anything worth preserving.”

First Day Fragments: Fall 2022

Each of the past four years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2021, 202020192018.

I spent most of this summer diligently making myself go out running several times a week. Like many of my summer goals this practice ended up being a mixed bag, and I ended up not hitting my arbitrarily-set target. Despite the aches and pains that have accompanied these runs, I have been pleased by my progress and consider this one of my best recent decisions. There is always another mile to run, just as there is always more that could be done. After a summer during which I neither got the rest I had hoped nor accomplished as much as I intended, it has been useful to just focus on the next step.

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The latest buzz about workplace culture is Quiet Quitting, aka working to contract. This is a radical concept that I have seen some of my friends who work in the UK talk about when they, *checks notes*, clock out for the weekend and take annual leave. In a general sense, this “trend” is a reminder that it often takes enormous amounts of uncompensated labor to make the current labor systems function.

This is no less true in higher education than anywhere else, and something that hits basically everyone involved. The diminishing portion of the overall faculty being tenure or tenure track means that the service burdens fall that much heavier on those who remain, while the low pay for adjuncts is sometimes justified by pretending that the hours spent working outside of the classroom don’t exist. At least in the former case there is a reasonable expectation that their job will remain semester after semester.

However, quiet quitting is especially disruptive in teaching. In some fields it means reclaiming one’s time from their employer, but in this one the consequences disproportionately affect the students. They might not exactly be customers, but they are paying for their education in some capacity, which is a difficult circle to square.

My situation is not nearly as bad as many people, and I have a department chair who is excellent about keeping most duties not in my contract off my plate. And yet, this trend of quiet quitting has been on my mind this last week of working (uncompensated) overtime to make sure that my courses were ready to go. Ultimately this is yet another reminder that the entire system needs to be reformed to make it more humane for everyone involved.

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One summer during college (summer 2007), I worked on the team that moved the college to a new learning management system. At one point we had a conversation about the functionality that allowed professors to track the time students spent on the website. As a student, I was stridently against making this function available to professors, or at least against highlighting it for them–I don’t actually recall the specific details of the discussion. My point at the time was that these tracking features were, but delicately, bullshit, and I didn’t want there to be any chance that such data would play a role in my grade when it provided, at best, a shoddy reflection of my engagement with the course.

I have modified my stance somewhat as a professor. I still strongly dislike the emphasis on time-on-task, even if I begrudgingly acknowledge that it can play a role in setting expectations. As for the LMS data, I never use it as a form of assessment but have found that I like having it as a diagnostic tool–one of several in my arsenal that can help me best help my students.

It was with this background that I read John Warner’s piece last week on the madness of productivity trackers. He excoriates these trackers as not only a bad way of assessing productivity, but also actively harmful to knowledge work that requires hours of work that can’t be tracked by these tools without rigging an artificial mechanism to keep the system occupied while you actually get the work done. As Warner puts it, ” we are more than our ability to produce according to metrics counted by an algorithm.” He also rightly points out how LMS policies in college can serve as a training ground to normalize this sort of surveillance. This makes me wonder whether the marginal benefit I gain in helping my students is worth contributing to our present dystopia.

ΔΔΔ

I found this semester to be particularly difficult to prepare for. In part my struggle was the growing pain of designing and preparing a new course that is unlike anything I have taught before while, simultaneously, having events conspire to keep me from get the amount of rest I had intended. Put simply, I was tired. But a substantial portion of my exhaustion was not so much physical as feeling emotionally drained from the fire hose of devastation that seems to be going on in the world, from historic drought to continuing pandemic, to vaccine denial bringing about the return of awful disease thought eliminated by modern technology, to the fever pitch of nasty politics, to the crisis of climate change. All systemic problems where the proposed solutions range from personal responsibility to nothing whatsoever. Not good.

In his book Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon writes about the importance of hope as a pedagogical obligation because this is not a job that one should do if they don’t have at least a glimmer of optimism about the future.

I spent most of this summer not feeling a whole lot of hope. I’m still not, in a lot of ways. But this is also not a job that one can do without hope and I often find that I can see that hope most clearly when I’m working with my students. This is very likely going to be a challenging semester, but one day into the semester and I can already start to see the glimmer of that hope rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The world might be burning, but that doesn’t mean we can just let it burn. Only by working together can we start to heal.

Three Things of Spring 2022

Grades are submitted, another semester is in the books—along with my first year at Truman State.

Frankly, that end couldn’t come soon enough. A bunch of factors colluded to make the first two months of the semester one of the busiest stretches of my life. Most of that busy was good, but it also meant that I spent the back half of the semester—a period during which I organized a speaker coming to campus and prepared an hour-long talk for a student group, on top of teaching and meetings—triaging my commitments and trying to avoid burning out. I don’t recommend letting things get this busy.

With the semester just several days in the rear-view mirror and aided by an early heat wave that sent the temperatures into the 90s, I am starting to settle into a summer routine. I will have a post in the coming days that lays out some goals, but, first, I want to take a moment to survey the semester that just ended.

As you might guess from the title, I have three major thoughts.

First, I once again find myself considering burnout.

More than once in the past few months I asked myself how much of my exhaustion was particular to this semester, how much of it was residual anxiety from years spent as a part-time adjunct, and how it was the accretion of stress from teaching for two years during a global pandemic.

The answer, of course, is “all of the above.”

In my muddled thoughts from last semester, I framed this question in light of compassionate pedagogy and idly wondered whether flexible policies inadvertently prompts students to devalue a course. Despite those questions, my “flex” late policy that asked students to either submit their work by the time a checkpoint came due or fill out a form that would record their extension was easily one of the most popular course policies I have ever come up with so I naturally rolled it over to similar effect this semester. Despite my misgivings, my students reported exactly what I hoped, that this policy allowed them the flexibility to manage their schedules and do their best work. Transitioning to a specs grading system this fall will require some slight tweaks because there will no longer be points to deduct for late assignments, but the framework of this policy will be fixture of my courses going forward.

The popularity of this policy speaks to the stress that the students are facing and I came out of this semester more convinced than ever that the problems with burnout are structural. No amount of self care will resolve these issues and reminders to be mindful like the one I received last week from a textbook publisher border on the farcical.

In his recent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman argues time management gurus have been focusing on exactly the wrong message. Basically, he says, we have a finite amount of time, which necessarily means that we will not be able to do everything in a single lifetime. Trying to do more by working more efficiently or cutting into time for rest will detract from the experience of all of the activities rather than lead feelings of accomplishment. His argument, then, is that we should do less so that the activities that we do do become more meaningful.

Burkeman was not writing about higher education specifically, but there is a useful lesson here. Bill Caraher on his blog has written a good bit about “slow” as an ideal and mentioned his concerns with the workload expected of both graduate and undergraduate students. I fear that I contributed a little bit to the heightened expectations such that I am going to scale back a little bit in the fall. At the same time, this is not a problem that I can solve on my own.

Second, this semester I optimistically incorporated peer review into several of my courses. My students had to bring paper drafts to class and submit a copy to Blackboard. We talked about papers and revision before the first peer review day, and I had hoped that the course material would give the reviewers the content background to critique the papers, while seeing different approaches to similar material, repeated practice at reviewing, and my feedback would make them better writers and reviewers over the course of the semester.

In short, this part of the course was a spectacular failure.

I should qualify that statement. Some of the students became pretty good reviewers and saw dramatic improvement in their work, but, for every one of those, there were at least two for whom it didn’t work. The causes varied. Some routinely brought such scant “drafts” that their peers had almost nothing to critique. Others reported only receiving grammar and spelling comments. Still others reported deep-seated anxiety over giving sharp feedback and being unwilling or unable to look at the comments. And those were substantive problems before considering that peer-review day saw by far the lowest attendance rates.

The requirement that drafts be submitted to Blackboard also allowed me to give some feedback at an early stage, but even minimal guidance magnified my workload to an unmanageable extent.

I think that peer review can work, but I need to come up with a new approach because what I did this semester ain’t it. I suspect that it would require significantly more time training students to give good feedback and reiterating the purpose of the exercise to make them more receptive to the comments. Guiding students to become better readers would also help, but there were enough different problems that I doubt this is the sole or even primary cause. I don’t want to abandon the peer-review entirely, but the question is how to make it useful.

Third, something of a PSA: when you have two assignments due close together, the one that needs timely feedback should be due first.

For reasons that defy understanding I reversed that order this semester and spent several weeks in grading purgatory as a result. I hadn’t finished grading the first set when the second arrived and required immediate attention, causing the first batch to languish for far longer than I intended. Simply changing the order in which these arrived would have made for a more satisfactory experience for everyone involved.

Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You have just spent the last ten minutes doomscrolling through Twitter. Some of the posts made you laugh. Some made you anxious over the state of the world. Some made you insecure about what you are or are not doing. A couple made you think. Maybe you responded, but probably not. You might have clicked through a link, but, again, probably not. It is time to work. You close the Twitter app. Then, without so much as putting your phone down, you reflexively open the Twitter app and check out what is happening — if you’re anything like me, you didn’t even open another app in between.

Or maybe you went from the Twitter app on your phone to Twitter on a browser, or vice-versa.

Or, maybe, TikTok or Facebook are more your speed. Or maybe snapchat or a game. The specifics don’t matter because the end result is the same: people flit from one thing to another drawn like moths to a flame to advertisements, social media, and a host of other distractors carefully designed to harvest our attention.

This ubiquitous feature of modern life, naturally, leads to waves of hand-writing over the pace of life and how modern technology has entirely ruined the ability of people, but particularly young people, to focus for any length of time.

In an educational context, these fears has led to the question of how to best eliminate distractions from the classroom, whether through draconian technology bans or trying to convince students to treat class like a sanctuary where they should leave their concerns at the door for the duration. According to James Lang, however, these well-meaning impulses are asking the wrong questions. We can never eliminate distractions. Beyond the simple fact that our monkey minds are calibrated to look for distractions, it is too much to expect that students will be able to put out of mind a sick loved one, or a relationship problem, or a bodily pain, or any of an infinite variety of other concerns for a class that may or may not be all that important for them. If this wasn’t obvious before, it should be now given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as James Lang points out in the first chapter, is that latest round of laments for the prelapsarian days before distraction are strikingly myopic. That is, there was never a golden age when people were free from distraction and laments about its loss merely get updated to account for technology. In his posthumous novel “The City and the Mountains” (A Cidade e as Serras) from 1901, the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós includes a dream sequence where the narrator is appalled by the frivolity of modern life:

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it—the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Or one could look to the collection of quotes on the subject collected by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

In other words, to be distracted is to be human. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a kitten who doesn’t understand it is a problem for her to repeatedly leap onto my desk, chew on books, papers, and pens, and nuzzle my hands while I type. She is also fascinated by my fingers when I am touch-typing.

Lang’s thesis in Distracted is thus that we should not pursue the quixotic aim of eliminating distraction, but that we should be leaning in to strategies that cultivate attention. Sometimes this requires temporarily eliminating distractions — when I am doing my academic writing, for instance, I set a length of time during which I turn off my email and won’t check social media —but, more frequently, the strategies involve finding ways to redirect and renew attention when it flags over the course of a class and a semester. Learning is hard work and if you’re anything like me your attention span dips precipitously when you’re tired. The same thing applies to students.

This thesis might be simplicity itself, but actually pulling it off in a classroom setting requires practice and attention.

Like his earlier book Small Teaching, Distracted is not prescriptive. Lang mentions several times that he is generally agnostic about a lot of teaching methods because good teaching can take many forms. What works for one teacher — or student — won’t necessarily work for another. Rather, he lays out current research into the science of attention and uses numerous examples of activities and practices to establish principles that any teacher can adapt to their class.

I concluded of Small Teaching that its simplicity was the greatest sign of its success. Distracted tackles thornier issues and Lang dedicates the entire third chapter (~35 pages) to the tech ban debate that couches his suggestions in the awareness that his own policies have changed quite dramatically over the years. This and other portions of the book take a more process-oriented approach that encourage the teacher to be conscientious of how the policies affect the classroom atmosphere.

Other portions of Distracted are more like Small Teaching. The book’s second part offers six “practices” of attention and how they can help draw students toward the material you have to offer. These range from the simple — cultivating a community through the use of names and modeling the behavior you want to see by leaving your phone in your office — to engaging student curiosity to techniques for focusing attention by switching between activities or with quick attention renewal devices in which he gave the example of a preacher asking an audience for an “amen” when they start to drift. Lang also makes the case that assessments are a critical component of attention because they work to direct students toward the material that you believe is important in the course. Sometimes this means crafting assessments with attention in mind since many students will never be more focused on your material than when writing a big test, but other times it involves no- or minimal-grading on repeated assignments that ask the students to connect what they’re learning in the class to life today. Students might find the practices unfamiliar at first, but with practice and attention on the part of the teacher they can pay dividends in the classroom.

Much of what Lang writes in Distracted echoes the direction I have been moving my courses over the past few years in terms of building community and keeping the classroom fresh, particularly on low energy days. It doesn’t always work, of course, but each of the chapters in Part 2 offers a wealth of ideas to help draw students back in. For this reason I fully expect that I will return to Distracted for inspiration and found that it was an ideal book to read while putting together my courses for the semester. In fact, I often would read something that inspired me to put down the book mid-chapter to modify language in a syllabus or tweak an assignment. It is possible to quibble with a small individual observation or policy or suggestion, and I did at times, but for every one where that happens two more will land home.

Distracted is not necessarily where I would start for a new teacher looking for tips on teaching (my current recommendation is David Gooblar’s The Missing Course), but it is both one of the two books I would suggest after that (along with Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom) and a book with a lot worth considering for even the most experienced teachers.

Teaching to the Style Guide

One of my most vivid memories from my middle school days involve my keyboarding class (or whatever it was called). Somewhere along the way, and probably in at least some small part in that class, I did learn how to touch-type, but I clashed with the teacher on a number of points. For one, we had to type from a script, but that sheet had to be kept so that we could not look at the monitor. Even now, at a time when I sometimes type with my eyes closed or while staring off into space, I prefer to be able to see the screen. For another, this teacher demanded that we had to include two spaces after periods.

This might have made sense with the specific program we used in the class, which may have not had proportional fonts, but she justified the demand by insisting that every business manual would require double spaces after periods. This is of course nonsense. Most manuals regard the convention as a relic of the typewriter-era, which is something my father, a printing and graphic design teacher, pointed out, before offering me the sage advice of doing what she asked for the class grade and then ignore it going forward.

Admittedly, this teacher was close to retirement and I could not have been an easy student since I’ve always had a hard time bending when the instructions ask me to do something that I know is wrong — this difficulty reared its head again in another context when I was a senior and the two principals called me into their office to question me about some award essay where I had asserted that Bill Clinton had been impeached (he was; I didn’t get the award). However, I thought about this keyboarding teacher again when I saw a teacher on Twitter give his policy about spaces after periods.

Tweet that reads: "If my students don't use two spaces after a period, then they lose a letter grade on their essays for MLA formatting. It's my policy."

Setting aside that his assertion doesn’t even hold up according to MLA standards, I can’t imagine having a policy that is this punitive over something so small. I can understand why some professors want to be demanding when it comes to grammar and syntax since those are elements that can (sometimes) have a direct impact on the clarity of a student’s argument. By contrast, this is a severe penalty for a formatting error.

Since I am starting to get prepare for this fall semester, though, his (bad) policy has me thinking again about my own policies when it comes to written work. I have always followed two guiding principles:

  1. I care about students developing as thinkers. Writing, as John Warner explains, is thinking. This means helping students develop as writers.
  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about grades because I think that they often warp incentives, but it is my obligation as an educator to give students the tools and opportunities to earn the grade that they want.

Toward these ends, the details of my assessments have evolved to reflect what I want students to take away from the class. Since writing is fundamentally iterative, for instance, I added optional revisions that allowed students to earn higher grades on their written work. The most recent versions of these assignments include a small portion of the grade dedicated to “Grammar, Syntax, and Style” in order to provide a measure of accountability, but an equal portion of the grade is wrapped up in a metacognitive reflection paper about the process of completing the assignment. The single biggest component of the grade comes from the argument, and every assignment guide for prompt-driven papers comes with this advice:

You are not expected to answer every part of the prompt since these are questions that you could write an entire book about. The best papers take ownership of the prompt in order to make an argument based on information that includes, but goes beyond, the material assigned for the class. Since there is no “right” answer, I will be looking to see how you approach the question and how you use the sources to defend your argument.

Although I have gradually added guidelines and suggestions on the assignment sheet, my assignments are, if anything, still too open ended. When it comes to citations, for instance, I have traditionally told students:

There is no assigned citation style guide, but you must cite all relevant information, following a citation style of your choice (I prefer Harvard or Chicago, personally, but you can follow MLA or APA). Please include a works cited page for all citations.

While I should be clearer about what information is relevant, this particular policy reflects my own ambivalence about citation styles (my personal house style is a slightly modified Harvard system) and a conviction that policing the format of a citation distracts students from content. And yet, my laissez faire attitude toward style might be equally problematic, both creating unintentional anxiety created by a lack of guidance and leading some students to not follow a style at all.

By contrast, I am reminded of a policy of one of my college professors: your citations must be in Chicago citation style and failure to do so will result in a penalty. I found this assignment frustrating at the time, but I see some wisdom in it now. The penalty sounds severe, but she laid out the expectations from the start, explaining that it wasn’t that Chicago was the best style but that Chicago was a style and part of the assignment was to turn in work that followed that style.

I am not sure that I want to go quite this far in my courses, if only because doing so would make grading papers even more like copy-editing than it already is and I’m not sure that that is in anyone’s interest. However, I am strongly considering choosing a “house” style guide (with a handout) that I can point students to as a default option. My thought here is that having a house style might provide some guardrails that remove the pressure of choosing “the right” style, thereby allowing students to focus again on the content.

At the same time, my inclination is to still allow students to follow other style guides if they so desire but ask that those who do reflect on the choice in the metacognitive portion of the assignment. The trick will be crafting a policy that provides flexibility and student agency while also putting in place limits that guide students to spend their energies on the parts of the assignment that matter most.

Radical Hope

“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”

“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”

Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.

The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:

Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.

and:

We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?

Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.

In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).

The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.

This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.

There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.

There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.

The Missing Course

David Gooblar’s The Missing Course offers a simple, but radical thesis: that improving college teaching requires shifting the mindset about what the product is the professor offers. It is easy to think that your product is your expertise in your content area, honed through years of study. Institutional structures in PhD programs and promotion standards reinforce this belief from one end, while, on the other, there is a temptation to think that the transaction the students are paying for is to have knowledge transmitted to them by a world renowned expert (you).

However, speaking as someone who took classes from some exceptional lecturers and loves the feeling of one of his own lectures landing with an audience: even the most inspiring lecturer will not connect with every student. Gooblar’s proposal follows in the vein of recent scholarship on teaching and learning that encourages teachers to eschew lectures in favor of shades of active learning, but with a critical addition: that the product is not the content, but the student.

This proposal seems obvious, but it also requires foundational changes in class design and assessment and simply bypassed the handwringing about why students aren’t capable of picking up the subtle themes and brilliant observations about life and everything. As Gooblar opens with in chapter one, is that you can’t make someone learn, so the challenge is finding ways to encourage learning beyond the punitive threat of a poor grade. The lecture works well, if still imperfectly, for students who are already interested in learning, but it works best as a gateway drug––a taste that prompts students to go out and get more. That is, the lecture works well for students who approach it as part of an active learning process. But too many others approach the lecture as something to passively receive, learn by rote, and regurgitate as best they are able on the test.

Each of The Missing Courses’ eight chapters approach a different aspect of this teaching, from the basic course design to assignments, to classroom activities, with practical, actionable suggestions to try. There are too many points to summarize here, but I found myself happy to find practices I use in my own classes like low-stakes weekly quizzes and extensive opportunities to revise assignments among his suggestions and still found myself jotting down new ideas.

As a history professor who believes in the importance of teaching writing across the curriculum, I was particularly excited to have suggestions from a professor of writing and rhetoric about how to encourage best practices in citations. For instance, he provides the most lucid explanation I have seen of why students struggle to cite secondary scholarship and will often only do so when citing direct quotes:

“To write a summary, the student must read the whole text (perhaps multiple times), think deeply about the most important aspects, and synthesize observations into a concise rendering of the text’s substance”

In other words: using secondary scholarship is hard and intimidating (what if you get it wrong!), where citing a quote is easy. I couldn’t tell you where I learned how to cite scholarship. I don’t remember being taught how at any point, it was just something I picked up by osmosis, so I very much appreciated seeing Gooblar’s suggestions on activities that can help teach these skills.

All of Gooblar’s suggestions come back to the student as the course material. Toward that end, he emphasizes the importance of respecting students as individuals even, or perhaps especially, when they are failing the course, and of facilitating the classroom as a community where not only are students and their ideas respected, but students may also help each other grow.

At this point you might be thinking, what about the content? If the students are taking a course on World History, shouldn’t they, you know, learn about World History? Of course the answer is yes, but, speaking from experience, thinking in terms of coverage is a trap. I tell my students in these classes that every class period (and usually every slide) could be a semester-long class course of its own, meaning that we only ever scratch the surface. Which is going to be more beneficial to the student in the long run: making sure that we spend ten minutes in a lecture talking about the Tibetan Empire of the second half of the first millennium CE, which is admittedly fascinating, or redirecting that time to primary source analysis, discussion, debate, practice summarizing and engaging with sources, or any of a myriad of other active learning techniques. Some of these are harder when teaching introductory courses where it seems like the students don’t have enough background to engage at the level you want and lectures are sometimes a necessary component of the class, but incorporating active learning into the course offers significant rewards.

Toward the end of the book, Gooblar turns his attention to how to teach in the modern, tumultuous world. I jotted a brief response thread on Twitter, but wanted to spotlight it again here. College professors are often accused of trying to indoctrinate their students into radical Marxism or the like. While American college professors do tend to be more liberal than conservative, the largest number actually self-classify as moderate. Further, the recent primary results have demonstrated that the Democratic party remains a big-tent coalition, while the Republican party, which has accelerated attacks on funding for higher education in recent years, has veered further right. The political doesn’t end at the classroom door and to pretend otherwise is naive.

As a history teacher I run into these problems with regularity and, to be honest believe that I can and should better handle them. Ancient Greek democracy was made possible by both exclusion (narrow participation that did not include women) and exploitation (Athens had many times the number of enslaved people as it did citizens). The spread of religions was at different points a blood-soaked process, Christianity included, and European colonization amounted to exploitation and indoctrination at best and either incidental or intentional genocide and ethnic cleansing at worst. And for all that I find history endlessly fascinating.

Gooblar suggests a similar approach to the one I’ve adopted, which is to “take seriously the equality of our students and the inequality of the world,” while placing an emphasis on process. There are some premises that I will not tolerate in my classroom, including endorsement of slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, but I also believe that there is room for students to argue for the virtue of, for instance, Athenian democracy and capitalism so long as their arguments are based on good use of available sources and I build time into the class period to have students practice these skills.

One of the virtues of a college classroom should giving students space to debate issues in a responsible and respectful manner: disagreements are okay, bullying is not.

The limiting factor in college teaching is not knowledge, but attention. Becoming a good teacher requires practice and cultivation, just like developing any other skill. Fortunately for anyone interested in improving their skill, we are currently living in a golden age of publications on teaching and learning. I haven’t finished everything on the list of resources I solicited a few years back, but The Missing Course is already my go-to recommendation for a place to start.

Skepticism and Historical Authority

Reading student work elicits all manner of emotions, but given time and support to do it properly I like it. I had better, given that my basic goal is to deliver a continuous stream of feedback to my students while having them write and revise as much as I can genuinely respond to in a semester.

This cycle offers two advantages. First, having students write regularly gives them opportunities to develop transferrable communication skills that people often use to justify teaching fields like history, but then don’t always actually teach. I like to put substance behind my words. Second, picking up on John Warner’s dictum that writing is thinking, having my students write gives me a good sense of what they are picking up and where I can help.

Today, for instance, I opened a class with discussion of one of their quiz questions from last week where many people uncritically repeated a claim found in ancient sources that one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs started the decline of the dynasty in part because his insatiable lust let him be ruled by his mistress. I pointed out that the way in which the sources (and more than one historian, let alone the students) talk about this make it sound like the problem is that he listened to what a woman had to say, rather than that she and her brother were (perhaps) using her relationship to get wealthy. Thus the entire episode, should we accept it, is about corruption at court, not that a woman was involved in making decisions.

This is a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one that offers opportunities to inspect our own biases. Moments like this happen quite frequently, and regular written assignments give opportunities to catch and talk about issues that would otherwise slip right by.

Today’s example comes from an upper-level class with a lot of history majors and other interested folks, meaning that there is a relatively high baseline for basic skills and skepticisms, though there still remains a tendency that is more common to intro classes: deference to historical authority.

Students in my lower-level survey courses struggle with source analyses. In part they lack sufficient context, but I think that deference is a more pernicious and deeper-rooted problem, and the only remedy is “more history” (delivered in the voice of Christopher Walken, of course). Students weren’t there, so to speak, and the source was, at least in theory, so the source must be right. So too when they read history books they often default to reading for “how it was” than “what argument is being made,” and then to the professor and down the line. When students are coming from history testing regimes in high school that prioritize factual knowledge and at best the facsimile of an argument, then they have to be taught skepticism with regard to history that might come instinctively to other parts of life. This credulity is a matter of conditioning and experience, not intellect.

I don’t have statistical evidence support this observation, let alone answers, but it strikes me as curious that in an age seemingly defined by conspiracy theories and a resurgence of skepticism of things that can be tested, there is nevertheless a deference to history, a topic that by definition cannot. Even more curious is when “research” begins and ends with Wikipedia, or perhaps worse, when it entails carefully triangulating internet sites that echo each other as sources of legitimacy.

Learning to question historical sources––not to mention claims of historical authority––critically and carefully therefore not an idle pastime, but a critical life skill. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean that what he or she produced is accurate. Nor does an appeal to history automatically lend authority to a position, particularly if it is based on shoddy use of evidence. There is only so much that can be done in one class and no school is going to re-write its curriculum around history any time soon, but learning to think this way (skeptically, critically, carefully) is the most important skill a student can take away from any history class.

First day fragments

My fall semester begins in earnest today, with the first session for both of my classes. I don’t have a single back-to-school post idea, but rather a bunch of loosely connected ones, so decided to go with a fragmentary format.

“I didn’t get everything done” is a standard lament for academics come late August, bemoaning some combination of the cult of productivity, human limitations, and the difficulties of researching during the school year. I am no exception. I set an ambitious schedule for reading scholarship beyond my immediate research, but only managed to read a handful of books and articles, and a couple of books on teaching.

There are a couple of explanations for this failure. One is that the summer quickly became very busy, with multiple family trips that had less down-time than anticipated, meaning that there was neither opportunity for reading nor for a deep recharge of my batteries. Another was that I taught an intensive summer World History course in June, so much of my spare reading went toward preparing for class. A third was that seemingly every spare moment around these time commitments was sucked up by working on revising my dissertation as a book. My goal for that was to have it under review by the start of class, but I missed that deadline, too. At least I am in a position to meet my revised goal of August 31 for that one…

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There has been a movement in recent years to normalize failure, particularly in academia, leading to people sharing their failures on Twitter over the last week. I mentioned there that I respect the movement, and appreciate the baseball analogy where if you’re a batter and only “fail” (make an out) at the plate six out of every ten times, you belong in the hall of fame. (There are obviously other statistics from baseball that could make that more or less extreme. If you’re a pitcher and batters swing and miss just 20% of the time, you’re incredible, but if that is the percentage of the time you throw strikes, then you probably quit playing in little league.) I respect the impulse to normalize failure because it is inevitably going to happen, regardless of how generous and kind the academy becomes. Everyone is going to experience article/grant/abstract/job/proposal rejections for a host of reasons. Sometimes those reasons are good (the project needs more work), sometimes they are petty, and a lot of the time is a simple numbers game that has almost nothing to do with what was proposed.

My shadow CV includes all of these things, including four article rejections, two more revise and resubmits that were later accepted, at least seven paper abstracts rejected that I can think of off hand, too many funding applications for fellowships and travel grants to count them all. And I am only a little more than a year removed from graduating with my PhD.

At the same time, I found the push to normalize, share, and celebrate failure on social media hard to handle. The main reason is that while failure is normal in the academy, and rejections can be handled deftly with an eye toward improving the project for the next time around, it is also a sign of privilege to be able to reflect on this Shadow CV. It is coming from someone still “in the game”, as it were, and I heard with every round of shares “this is what you *should* have been applying for.” As in, your failures themselves are inadequate because the “stars” fail bigger and better.

Then pair this with the part I left out of my Shadow CV that are the all jobs I’ve applied to without making the long list. The Shadow CV is meant to normalize failure so that people can better overcome the natural fear of it and thereby reduce anxiety, but when mixed with too few academic jobs to go around and the sheer amount of time that applying for them takes, it just exacerbated mine.

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I’m looking forward to teaching both of my classes this semester. One I am teaching my own syllabus for the second time, the other I am teaching as the sole instructor for the first time. I had the chance to teach on my own a little bit during graduate school, but this is my second year of continuously teaching my own courses and reading up on pedagogy, so I am now to synthesize some principles for my classroom.

First Principle: Learning, not grades. I do not care about grades beyond making sure that I have created a reasonable and achievable grade scale for the class. My goal as a teacher is to help students develop practical skills such as writing and the ability to understand the world through critical analysis and synthesizing information. Toward that end, I believe that many common assessment tools that are built for scale are next to useless in actually assessing learning. I design my classes around assignments that require students to develop arguments through writing and that build on each other so that students can show improvement in tasks that are not easy.

Second Principle: Empathy. Students are adults who have a larger number of demands on them than even I did when entering school fifteen years ago. I aspire to treat them like adults with responsibilities, just one of which is my class. College is “the real world” where students are on their own for the first time, and I want to be a mentor/coach/guide. This means having empathy, and encouraging them to take ownership of their education by talking with me when they have a conflict or need help.

Third Principle: Engagement. “Meaningful learning experiences” is a hot topic, though my mother assures me that this has been the key phrase for many decades now. Every class is going to be selective in the material it covers, so I see my job being to give students the tools to learn more and to pique their curiosity to want to do so. This means developing activities and assignments that require engagement, through games, debates, and projects where students take ownership of the material. This has not been the easiest task for me as someone who found history books thrilling in high school, but something that I am committed to improving in my own teaching.

There are others, but these are my first three.

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Without further ado, let the semester begin!