When students write down what I say…

The semester just ended, which means it is time to review course evaluations. These feedback forms are notoriously problematic, but I encourage students to give me feedback and take what they say seriously. More than just that what students write can end up in a document I use for job applications, these are formative evaluations that can help me refine my practice. That is probably why a single negative review can cause such a sharp sting.

http://deathbulge.com/comics/155

Reader: I got one of those this semester.

But I don’t want to write about that. Instead, I want to share something that happened this semester: a student wrote down what I said. Not note-taking during a lecture, but writing down specific things that I said and then handing me a copy of this list on the final day.

Here’s a taste:

“If a monster’s just out there fishing or something, is it a monster?”

“Moose are big and scary as opposed to brown bears who are big and stupid.”

“Remember people: only barbarians wear pants.”

“Cassandra’s curse is that she’ll never be believed. I’m sure many ladies can relate.”

[speaking of Theseus] “He prays to Big Ocean Daddy.”

Sometimes discussions turn into improv and I say things specifically to prompt a response, here in a seminar on monsters, monstrosity, and classical mythology. Given that this is the sort of thing I did in classes with my favorite professors in college, this was immensely flattering — if also momentarily terrifying.

An Ending: Spring 2021

Here are two things that are true:

  1. My problems this school year were mild when compared to most people.
  2. I felt like a zombie for much of the last month because of the grind.

The spring semester felt a little easier in some ways. I mostly adhered to my resolution to KISS, which led to a more regular schedule and had noticeable benefits, particularly in my online class. I was also doing much less course building than in the fall, which allowed to focus more on best practices and maintain flexibility without the course devolving into a haphazard mess.

At the same time, a lot of these improvements were offset by the simple fact that both I and my students came into the semester already battered by an exhausting fall. Right around the time when we would have received our usual spring break I noticed a dip in everyone’s energy levels. I prescribed several “mental health days” late in the semester to try to account for this, but they were just a drop in the bucket. We kept going because that is what we had been told had to happen, but more than one student explained to me that whatever work they were giving me was perfunctory because they just needed the semester to be over.

I had a lot of sympathy for that position.

But I also had a ton of students who kicked ass this semester. Grades are in no way a reflection of personal worth — a good friend of mine aptly describes them as a professional evaluation of performance within a narrowly circumscribed realm — but I had some students earn among the highest grades I have ever seen by embracing not merely the grade rubric, but also the spirit of a class. Some really improved their writing over the course of the semester while also thriving in the open-ended discussion boards. Some threw themselves into their unEssay projects, like the student who melded the topic of my monsters course with the scientific literature review of her own major and produced a 17-page review of representations of mental illness as monstrosity in popular media, even turning the project in early. Others did really excellent work while parenting in a pandemic. I was disappointed that some students got lost along the way, but am unspeakably proud of everyone for making it to the finish line.

In light of these challenges, I have been wrestling with what, if anything, I want to carry forward from this year. The problem I have been facing is that most of what worked well were things that I had already incorporated into my courses. I am endlessly tinkering with tools and ideas to increase engagement and reduce cost. I was already using OER platforms and distributing my materials through the learning management system. I experimented with Discord without much success, but is something I would have done under other circumstances anyway (and probably will again).

Other changes, like going to entirely paperless grading, I abhor. There are no words to express how much I hate grading online. Quick quizzes where most of the work can be automated are one thing, but I struggle to give papers I grade on screen the attention they deserve. Using an Apple Pen on the iPad was, in theory, a step closer, but my clumsy hand-writing just got messier when the platform would even save what I wrote. Then there were the times when the platform refused to load documents. I understand the accessibility issues with asking students to provide hard-copies of their work, but I see enough advantages that I am going to return to grading on paper as soon as safely possible.

I have only been able to come up with two pandemic changes that I want to make permanent.

First, Zoom options office hours. Unlike my aversion to digital submissions described above, I only see advantages to having virtual options for office hours. This is not to say that I’ll eliminate the in-person sessions, but also having virtual options opens up possibilities for students who have other demands on their time and builds in flexibility that just doesn’t exist otherwise. This one will just require some thought as to the logistics (what happens when someone gets stuck in the virtual waiting room while I’m working with someone in person?) and boundaries.

Second, flex deadlines. This one is more of a work in progress based on the approach that I developed for deadlines this year. Basically, a course needs to have specific deadlines so that work is spaced out over the course of the semester and everyone roughly stays on track without falling too far behind.

In past years, I included on my syllabus a draconian late penalty not because I wanted to enforce it but because it used fear to get students to turn work in on time. In recent years I kept that policy, but added a once-per-semester freebie three-day extension. With the pandemic this year, I didn’t feel comfortable limiting that extension to a one-off and felt obliged to accept all late work. This meant significantly more book-keeping on my end, but worked in general.

What I want to do going forward is formalize a policy that was ad hoc this semester. My rough draft:

This course uses flex-deadlines for all assignments except presentations or those due on a weekly, recurring schedule (e.g. not quizzes). All major assignments (papers, take-home exams, projects) have a checkpoint in the syllabus. This date reflects where the assignments should fall in the semester based on the material we cover in class and giving adequate space between this and other assignments. By the time of this checkpoint you must either a) turn in the assignment, or b) requested an extension of e.g. 3- or 5- days. Longer extensions are possible on a case-by-case basis.

Submitting late assignments without communication with receive the following deductions: 0–24 hours late: 0%; 25–48 hours: -5%; an additional 5% reduction for each subsequent 24-hours, to a maximum of 50% off at 11+ days late.

There are some wrinkles I need to iron out here. This policy is harder to enforce with physical assignments (in the past, I have counted it complete with an emailed copy while requesting a hard copy for grading), for instance, and I’m not in love with the percent deductions (I like the 24-hour grace period and capping how much a student can lose for late work — if I give an assignment, I think there is value in the student completing it). I also ran into a problem where students were surprised when the end of the semester introduced a hard deadline. This one may be as simple as setting an earlier due-date for the final submission so that there is a cushion before I am up against the date I have to turn in grades.

However, I see four major advantages to this policy or something like it.

  1. It gives students more agency over their schedules. If college ought to be treated as a job (an unrealistic standard, in my opinion), it is better described as students managing four, five, or six (or more) part-time jobs simultaneously. Time management skills are important to cultivate, but I could say as much for myself.
  2. These are not open-ended extensions, but function something like a contract in that the students have to look at their schedule and tell me how long it will take them to get the work done.
  3. I am not putting any burden of proof on the student. I don’t need a doctor’s note/notarized letter/obituary. You need more time, I give you more time. The only requirement is communication, which, I hope, will improve outcomes overall by making other communication more likely.
  4. It better corresponds to how I grade than insisting that student must have their work in on time. I rarely sit down to grade bit assignments assignment as soon as they come in, so short extensions still mean that everything comes in before I have finished.

The best thing I can say about the 2020–2021 school year is that it is over. I am excited to start the next chapter of my career at Truman State University in August, but a part of me is going to miss these students with whom I went through so much. Now we get to celebrate:

The fall semester feels like it is right around the corner and I predictably have a lot I’m hoping to get done this summer. But, first, let’s all get some rest. We earned it.

Fall 2020: A Lost Semester

I came into this semester with the best of intentions. I knew this semester would be tough, so my courses were going to be characterized by flexibility, compassion, and doubling down on practices I adopted in the past such as allowing revisions.

My best-laid plans blew up in my face.

  • Flexible deadlines and giving students options of which papers to write led to students shooting through checkpoints and an end-of-semester rush to turn in work, including revisions that tended to address superficial rather than substantive issues.
  • Technology problems and a flexible attendance policy for coming in virtually led to lengthy awkward silences as I tried to bring people into the class discussion.
  • A COVID-safe classroom blew up my tried and true teaching strategies and masks blocked the visual feedback I rely on to guide classes.
  • A schedule without breaks caused burn out despite building in planned days off because a lack of coordination meant those weren’t actually days off.

I tried.

My students tried.

There were even individual bright spots that I’m clinging to, such as the most active participants in my online class who really threw themselves into their assignments.

But this was also the hardest semester I have ever experienced in a college setting. Many of my difficulties were predictable: needing to take a certification course in the middle of a semester during which I taught five classes (three of them new) at three different institutions, for instance, was always going to be a tough row to hoe. What I could only grasp in the abstract though was how teaching in a pandemic would exponentially increase the ancillary stressors of teaching, from the rituals of getting a classroom set up before beginning class to the moment-to-moment decisions during a class period to keep the class engaging. Teaching a fully asynchronous class, a week-by-week asynchronous class, a synchronous online class, and two theoretically-in-person-but-effectively-hybrid classes also didn’t help because I never had the luxury of settling into and attempting to perfect a single modality.

I hope my students learned something. For as much as I despair, some seemed to have, but what we just went through is not a sustainable model of education for anyone.

Now, I am someone who finds teaching to be quite draining even when things are going well, but I usually find that fatigue to be akin to the sort I feel after a good workout or writing session. This semester was different. Taken each on their own, I can’t complain about any of the individual components. Wiping down the teaching station before and after every class, for instance, became a ritual offering to the little voice in my head wailing in disbelief that we were teaching in person during a pandemic. The problem is that these little pieces accumulated by a magnitude. By about the midpoint of the semester I was a wreck. When the adrenaline faded from class, I would be left hollow and despairing of needing to teach again in roughly an hour. On days when I had to rush home to teach virtually I usually had just enough time to close my eyes for ten minutes before class started. Unless I was working with a student, I would spend office hours sitting on Zoom with a thousand-yard stare, knowing that the drive home and whatever time I spent making dinner were a brief respite before I had to go back to prepping for class for the next day.

Reading back over that last paragraph, I am exaggerating, but just a little bit. I didn’t teach on Fridays, went for long walks almost every morning, and was mostly successful at preserving my Saturdays off. I also stuck to a writing routine, unlike last fall, which meant that some of my busyness was self-imposed (writing is not in any of my contracts). And yet, I spent a good part of this semester not at my best. I could feel my patience rapidly fading and felt guilty for not being able to give as much to each class as I thought they deserved—for reasons of time, if nothing else. Even more telling, though, is that the semester passed as a blur that spit me out into an exhausted puddle on the other end. Three of my classes finished before Thanksgiving and only now, several weeks later as my final class for the term wraps up, am I feeling up to processing what I learned.

In my haste to build flexible courses for this semester, I inadvertently made my courses more complex. Perhaps the most extreme example of this came in the form of my papers where my giving the students choice in which assignments to complete gave the simultaneous appearance of too many assignments and a lack of structure—no matter how many times I reminded students.

My mantra for next semester is going to be KISS: keep it simple stupid. I intend to go back to basics, paring back the number of assignments such that the students will all write papers at the same time even as they will get the same amount of choice about what to write about. This will also let me better schedule the assignments to prevent quite the same end-of-semester rush. Similarly, I think small tweaks to online discussion formats, grading expectations for participation, and to what counts as “present” if attending a hybrid class could pay large dividends in terms of engagement, which, hopefully, will reduce some of the students’ confusion and my frustration. I can offer flexibility and generosity to students in how I treat them without making a hash out of my syllabus.

The best laid plans may only survive first contact, but that’s all the more reason to keep it simple. Thinking about how I can improve my courses for next semester while still recovering from the previous one and being not at all sure that it won’t be my last semester of teaching is a funny place to be in, but here we are. I have a few more weeks to rest, recover, and write that I fully intend to take advantage of, but I also started prepping for next semester last night because whatever I prepare now is something I don’t have to pull together at the last minute later. If I learned anything from this semester, those small tasks add up in a hurry when working under these conditions.

Course Reflection: Fall 2019

The end of the semester always hits me as a sudden stop. I go from the constant, frenetic scramble to prepare for class and grade assignments to few imminent deadlines and fewer set schedules. Work still looms and I still have jobs to apply for, but I find the schedule change abrupt and disorienting—particularly when the first involved teaching five classes and the second includes a snow-day and an imminent winter holiday.

Still, it occurs to me that I have fewer than three weeks until the cycle starts up again, and reflecting on what just happened is the first step in preparing for what comes next.

My reflection from this semester is simple: five classes are too many. That’s it, that’s the Tweet.

For no other reason than hoping to earn something that resembled a reasonable salary, I picked up one bit of teaching after another until I was teaching distinct five classes, three of which were functionally new, grading for another, and grading for an online class. I taught five days a week at two campuses a half an hour drive apart and basically gave most of my evenings and weekends to keep up with the prep and grading and, even then, needing to cut corners and falling behind in every class. In short, I taught none of these courses to my satisfaction.

This is not to say that these courses were catastrophes. They weren’t. Each had bright spots — an exercise, a reading, a class discussion — just that I was stretched too thin to give each class the attention it deserved.

Discussion of individual classes after the jump

Thesis or unThesis

The days are getting longer and pollen is in the air, which means the end of the spring semester approaches. As usual, I find myself reflecting on my courses and thinking about ways that I can improve my practice.

Some of these reflections are mundane––post readings earlier, move content around, allot more time for a particular reading; others are more foundational and abstract.

I have written before about how I design my to require students to write and to think. In some courses I think this backfires, such as when students may believe I am violating an unspoken contract about the expectations of a gen-ed course, but I generally get good results and see marked improvement in my students over the course of the semester.

Going into these writing assignments, I tell my students that every piece of writing has an argument, whether implicit or explicit, and that their writing needs one, too.

In practice, this means that everything they write needs to have a thesis. The problem is that the moment I invoke the T-word, they fall back on the rote lessons about thesis-writing: that it needs to be a single sentence and end in a tri-colon set of points that will make up the three body paragraphs of their five paragraph essay.

Students can do these exercises blindfolded and in their sleep. While working in the US History surveys as a graduate student, I used to run my class through exercises on this after receiving rounds of papers that lacked an argument. The theses developed in these exercises were more functional than earth-shattering, but the problems started to crop up the moment students were asked to start using evidence to build a paper, as though the two practices were totally disconnected and the thesis only existed to receive its mandatory check-mark.

Recently I have tried to address this disconnect by having my students write a lot of theses, just without telling them that is what they are doing. In surveys of any sort, I assign weekly quizzes online that ask questions from lecture and readings and allow retakes. Most of the questions are multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false, etc, and are designed for accountability and recall.

Every quiz also has at least one essay-style question, asking students to respond to a prompt in two or three sentences using evidence from the readings to support that answer.

In other words, write a thesis with a little bit of the evidence you would use to support that argument, but don’t finish writing the essay.

In lower-level classes, I keep this format through the semester, while in upper-level surveys, I start with one question (20% of the grade) and gradually expand until they make up the majority of the quiz (60–70%).

From my side of the desk, this format gives me ample opportunity to get a feel for what the class is picking up from lecture and the readings and, without committing to hours of grading, head off issues like casual sexism that they pick up from their sources.

(A class of 35 with two essay-style questions takes well under an hour to grade since it is a total of about six sentences per student.)

Equally important, though, it offers rewards for student writing. From these assignments alone, students in an intro survey will write at least 12 theses with evidence, on top of their other written assignments. In upper-level classes those numbers climb toward 30 or 40, with greater expectations for the use of sources.

Usually these written responses are good––thoughtful, careful, and creative–– all without ever mentioning the T-word.

This semester, though, I struggled with how to convey my expectations in longer assignments. The reason: in an effort to bypass problematic “rules” my students had learned regarded theses, I wrote my assignments without invoking the T-word.

The result was confusion and frustration all around. The students seemed to look at an assignment unmoored from their previous writing experiences and I had to belatedly explain that when I said their papers had to have an argument it indeed meant that they had to have a thesis, followed, inevitably, with a discussion of what a thesis is beyond the scope of the rigid formula.

Realistically these exchanges only took a few minutes before we were all on the same page again, but neither were they my finest moment in the classroom. And so I sit here at the end of April thinking about whether there is a way to forge new connections about the T-word, connections that break ingrained habits and help students conceptualize the thesis not as a check-box waiting to be ticked, but as a tool that encapsulates the point that the author wants to convey.