Tag Archives: Pedagogy

The Student Has Become the Master: Flipped Classrooms for Advanced Students


I realized today as I started preparing materials for my class on “Urban Environments in Literature and Film” that my students are pretty much teaching my class for me. Yesterday, I asked the day’s assigned group leaders to send me a list formulated in conjunction with their peers of 3-5 big questions they wanted answered or issues we should track as we proceed through our final novel, LA Confidential. Today, I am compiling some links and background readings based on what they sent me. I am doing work in response to an agenda that my students have set.

This happened by accident. The cession of power happened so gradually that I don’t think any of us noticed it, and the even bigger surprise is that it’s working out swimmingly. As a literature student and instructor, I am, of course, well indoctrinated in “student centered” classroom methods that incorporate Socratic dialogue and small group work. But never have I been in a situation in which the roles have been so radically reversed, in which I am essentially doing homework for my students. And what’s even more surprising is just how swimmingly this is working.

The first half of our semester proceeded pretty much like any advanced literature seminar. I would come to class with a very brief informal lecture prepared, lay out some issues in order to guide the subsequent discussion, and then the students would respond based on the agenda I had set. This seemed to be working just fine. The Bachelor’s level students here are elite students, and the level of participation (with way more than 50% of the class talking on any given day) was far exceeding my expectations. Not only do these students talk, they have opinions. They read texts critically and have interesting things to say about them. A couple of them read the scholarly introductions. I know for a fact that one finishes the books early and seeks out secondary sources on his own.

It was illuminating, then, to find out that the students themselves were dissatisfied with their level of participation when it was repeatedly cited as a weakness of the course on the midterm evaluations I had them hand in. I’ve had excellent students complain about their disengaged classmates before, and no one likes awkward silences. But the dissatisfaction in this case turned out to have a lot to do with my students’ varying degrees of comfort with spoken English. They are excellent readers and solid writers (the range of abilities is roughly equal to that of the American students I have taught but with different areas of difficulty). Students who didn’t talk very much said that they had things they wanted to say but that it took so long for them to put a coherent sentence together in their head that inevitably a more proficient student would beat them to it or the discussion would wander away from the topic. Several said they wished they had more opportunities to prepare what they were going to say in class outside of their daily journaling. And others said that they simply had a hard time understanding what was being said–either by me or by their classmates–if voices started overlapping or if we started speaking fast because we were especially engaged in that topic.

I had also noticed that my students seemed not completely comfortable with the kind of free-flowing discussion I was trying to foster. They still raised their hands to speak. They felt like they needed to have perfectly formed thoughts in order to participate. Some of this is a cultural issue–Russian secondary education has a reputation for being pretty authoritarian–but it was also clearly a confidence issue.

So, I decided to try and maintain the discussion format while giving students more opportunities to engage in a more structured, prepared way. I started having them do quick presentations on the subjects of their papers (two students per class session for a total of 10-15 minutes of class time). And for each session, I assign four student leaders who prepare topics and questions ahead of time for class discussion. They are then broken down into four small groups, which the student leaders guide through the subject matter they have prepared. At the halfway point, the groups have to produce some kind of deliverable (a presentation to the rest of the class, a visual map of the chapter, a set of unresolved questions, etc.), and what we do for the rest of class is determined by what they deliver. After about a week of this, I was doing very little in class aside from observing groups, synthesizing their conversations, and filling in gaps. No more lecturing, no more coming into the classroom with a pre-determined agenda.

Flipped classrooms are certainly not a new concept, but it’s something I deployed reluctantly for two reasons:

1) I was afraid that they would not arrive at the discussion topics that I thought were most important. This turned out to be unfounded, largely because my students are well-trained readers (Russian education is also highly literary). A class with a much lower level of ability probably could not handle this level of freedom. My students wound up covering almost precisely what would have covered. The leaders asked good questions, and they weren’t afraid to return to topics previously covered in order to figure out if peoples’ views had changed. In cases where I thought they had missed or glossed over something, I could use the second half of class to insist they delve into it deeper. During one discussion of a middle section of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the groups were consistently noticing the fact that character names get re-used, but they didn’t make anything of it other than, “Huh, that’s weird.” So I had the group leaders go up to the blackboard and take direction from their peers in mapping the way names were used across storylines to figure out what was going on.

2) My “good student” impulse sometimes supersedes my “good teacher” impulse. What I mean by this is that I as a teacher at the beginning of her career frequently feel the need to “prove” my mastery of the content to my students, when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Thus, class becomes a performance centered on the teacher rather than a collaboration facilitated by the teacher.

So, what began as an exercise to give every student an opportunity to talk, to lead, and to prepare what they want to say (each student leads twice) has resulted in class sessions where I do almost no talking, which is a kind of platonic ideal for some instructors. And it’s resulted in a situation in which my students have set the agenda for the remaining three weeks, and I am taking my lead from them. Approaching LA Confidential, I would have started by talking about noir genre tropes, but these kids are already past that (our last “text” was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where they had plenty of opportunity to reflect on and discuss Nolan’s and the Batman franchise’s indebtedness to noir). Instead two of the three groups spent the majority of class time discussing immigration, crime, and racism in the novel’s first section. This makes sense. Coming off of Rushdie earlier in the semester, immigration and cities as cites of multi-cultural interaction are already very much on our minds. Immigration is also a very raw political issue in Moscow at the moment. But it meant that instead of feeling the need to explain things they already understood, I instead started putting together a list of sources to help fill in background knowledge on immigration from Mexico to California in the 1950s.

In conclusion, this is a classroom model that has worked well for the past several weeks and one that I would likely deploy again with necessary adjustments for students’ level of ability. But if you have a class that is capable of setting a substantive agenda and independently performing good critical analysis, then sometimes its just best to get out of their way.

Image source.

The US Model Writing Center in Russia

The New Economic School in Moscow is a rather unique place. Created in 1991 by a group that included a Russian technocrat, an Israeli economist, and George Soros, its ideals are fundamentally internationalist, designed to train the best and brightest from Russia and other CIS nations in economic theory, send some of them to the US or Western Europe for advanced degrees, and bring them back to become the business and academic elite here in their home country. For that reason, by the time they graduate, students are expected to be fluent in English and fully acculturated to academic norms in the West.

For that reason, NES has deliberately sought out foreign faculty and foreign educational models. Even the Russian faculty tend to carry PhDs from places like Cambridge and MIT. And when the school decided to start offering a liberal arts-model BA in addition to its two Master’s programs, the idea of importing the US Writing Center/WAC model followed almost immediately. Because most of the Economics faculty are not equipped for writing instruction in English, this program has been staffed with faculty with Humanities degrees from overseas. Right now, the English department is roughly half Russian/half American. Three of the last four Writing Center administrators have been American (including myself, obviously), and all four have had experience working in American writing centers.

So in a number of important ways, our Writing Center resembles the one I was trained in: we train consultants to use the non-directive, process-oriented pedagogy advocated by foundational scholars like Stephen North. In addition to providing consultations, we provide resources to faculty to support the integration of writing into their curriculum. We encounter similar issues of misunderstanding and resistance from students and faculty when it comes to our Socratic, non-directive pedagogical model, though these are perhaps a bit more pronounced given the authoritarian model of Russian secondary education.

But in some very huge and perhaps rather obvious ways, our Writing Center will probably never look exactly like a US one. NES isn’t the first non-US institution to adopt this model (though it is the first in Russia), which is becoming more popular worldwide (indeed, recent Humanities PhDs with a sense of adventure ought to seriously consider exploring the international market, which often offers more attractive opportunities than the US market). And for that reason, the specific challenges we have here are worth discussing. Naturally, this is a subject that I will continue to reflect on as my time in Russia progresses, but here are a few broad points that have come to the forefront as I’ve begun working here:

For starters, ours is a bi-lingual Writing Center, offering consultations in both Russian and English. And when it comes to English, we have to assist students with widely varying levels of proficiency. Which means that we are involved not only in teaching writing in English but in teaching the language of English itself. Students can come in not only to get help with their writing assignments but to practice their pronunciation or conversation skills. We offer workshops in oral presentation skills in addition to writing skills. For that reason, we call ourselves the Writing and Communications Center (literal translation from Russian: “The Center for Written and Oral Communication”). And while the difference appears subtle, consulting on oral vs. written communication for EFL students requires a different set of competencies for consultants. Simply being a native English speaker helps but isn’t quite enough on its own. Some linguistics training and a basic understanding of English vs. Russian morphology makes a gigantic difference.

The differences between English and Russian extend beyond the mere mechanics of language, however. In the past few weeks at NES, we have come to think of essay writing in English as a completely different genre than  essay writing in Russian, where the argument often appears at the end and the writing tends more toward circularity than toward the pyramidal model we teach in Freshman Comp in the US. It’s not that the Russian way of writing is incorrect, it’s just that audiences in each language have different expectations when it comes to the structure of an argument, and students must be taught to tailor their papers and presentations to fit each. Therefore, this is a Writing Center that has to address the idea of “good writing” not as a set of universal rules but as a set of culturally and linguistically mediated practices.

And finally, as Tzu-Shan Chang reports in this article about Taiwanese writing centers, it is nearly impossible to find qualified peer tutors for consultations in English. We have three American interns (who all hold either a BA or an MA) and one PhD student from Moscow State University, but otherwise, all of our consultants are faculty. Particularly at such a small institution, this requires us to adopt dramatically different roles in our encounters with students as instructors rather than consultants. We do not take consultations for work in our own classes, but it is possible that we will see our students for work assigned by other professors. And I tend to hold that certain superficial (and maybe kind of dumb) distinctions–such as asking students to use my first name when I am working as a consultant–are important to distinguishing my role.

Literature Survey Final Project

I used to hate “creative” school projects when I was a student, since simply writing an exam required a whole lot of less of me, but for this year’s upper division American lit survey I decided to subject my class to just such a final assignment because as an instructor, I REALLY REALLY hate grading blue books.

Inspiration for this project came while I was putting together my syllabus and designing the Prezi course map and decided I wanted to render transparent the way in which designing such a course requires making some challenging decisions about what to include and what relationships between texts, genres, authors, and historical periods to emphasize. Any such course inevitably leaves things out and requires one to smooth over nuances that a more in depth study of any particular element would reveal. So, for the final project, I asked students to design a creative presentation that would re-present the overall arcs of the course in a way that seemed important or helpful for them. I told them to think about what they would do if asked to teach this course to other people or were designing the best study guide ever for a hypothetical final exam.

Link to handout.

I was pleased enough with the results first semester to give it another go during the Spring when I had some exceptional models to offer. I would say about half of the students chose to emulate the course map by using Prezi, though with some decidedly innovative twists of their own. Other students created Pinterest Boards, Tumblrs, and standard blogs.

Here are some Prezi examples:

The last one has an audio component that is completely worth listening to all the way through for its spot-on parody of NPR interviews.

By the way, here is a great shortcode converter that makes embedding Prezi in WordPress really easy.

Using Prezi to Create Interactive Course Maps

Over the past year, I’ve started using the free online presentation platform Prezi to create interactive course maps. Like most platforms of this kind, it is designed with a corporate user in mind, and its built-in templates are, in my opinion, extremely limited. However, since it is so flexible and customizable, once you get some experience with it, you can do some pretty cool stuff. The 3-D navigation means that you can create non-linear presentations that students can explore according to their own needs and interests, rather than flipping through Power Point slides. And it means that I can show relationships among various course concepts and assigned texts in multiple dimensions.

The following timeline for my American Literature survey is designed to show historical relationships, to introduce key periods and styles, and to provoke (by arrangement along the vertical axis) reflection about the canon.

This presentation, by the way, is public, so you can copy it and use it as a template for your own course. Several instructors on Prezi already have.

This second course map for my American Realism class is a lot less complex in terms of design, but I like the way it looks. I primarily used it to introduce each author on the syllabus and suggest jumping off points for discussion.

In a future post, I’ll talk about how students used Prezi to create their own final projects.

Entering a New World

So, grading papers was a little bit of a bummer this weekend.  While one student who struggled with the last assignment worked extraordinarily hard to produce an A paper this time around (after one of the most productive workshop sessions I’ve ever moderated, meetings during office hours, and three complete overhauls of his rough draft), a few of my students who had previously done well took a few steps back, committing some of the same errors that I had previously thought were limited to three or four individuals.  Namely, they are using their chosen texts as excuses to talk about their personal views on a subject rather than producing an analytical argument based on clear evidence from that chosen text.

A few of these students came after me after class to say that they recognized the mistakes that they had made, that they didn’t like the papers that they had written either (which is encouraging) and that they would spend more time on the assignment going forward.  But I do think that a number of my students are laboring under that common misconception that the study of literature is essentially a free for all, that the “subjectivity” of interpretation means that interpretation is essentially personal, that there are no wrong answers, that anything can mean anything.  So, I brought in Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” today in order to talk about what the first task of any reader or observer of a work of art is:  to fully understand what the creator of a work was trying to communicate.  This means setting preconceptions aside and allowing oneself to be transported into a particular world with particular protocols, particular rules and causes and effects that may or may not have direct correlaries in the real world:

If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it.  Nothing is more boring or ore unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie.  We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.  When this new world has been closely studied , then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

For Nobokov and for philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, this is a moral and pedagogical imperative:  art and the effort to faithfully understand what the author is trying to communicate is how we learn to come into sympathy with other perspectives.  Upon re-reading this essay, I was surprised at how much I resist this way of reading, how suspicious I am, in fact, of looking at a work of art as a contained body of meaning, hermetically sealed off from its context.  The good postmodernist in me believes that meaning are unstable, that artists, in many ways, do not control what their works mean for each individual who encounters it.  The feminist in me is inherently suspicious of author’s motives and of the way in which the realities contained in texts are both socially constructed and participate in the construction of contingent knowledge as historically transcendent.  In other words, in my own work, I reflexively attend to everything that comes after “then and only then” in that paragraph and perhaps do a poor job of helping my students master everything that comes before it.  Because while I still hold that meaning is unstable and contingent and that artists are not infallible, I have to get my students to a place where they can see that while there are multiple available interpretations for any given work of art, the number of interpretations is, in fact, limited.  Otherwise, I get papers on why the Will Smith character in I Am Legend is a Christ figure based on a criteria so loose that it could apply to almost any protagonist in any narrative in Western literature.  I also wind up getting papers that tend to read, say, sections of Paradise Lost as an object lesson or a sermon–no matter which character is speaking at any given time–rather than a Milton’s particular entry point into theological and political debates about the nature of freedom and its relationship to both divine and civil law.

Thus, at the moment, I am trying to summon up the good little Formalist in me and disciplining myself to ensure that my students understand, first and foremost, what the author means before moving on to any historicist or postmodernist critique, though this is the first class in six years where I’ve really felt the necessity of doing so.  Either I’m becoming more aware, or I’ve just been dealt a class that is particularly in need of work at the level of reading comprehension.  It’s probably a little of both.


Teacher Complains about Students on the Internet. America Loses Its Collective Shit.

Editorial Note:  I have revised my thinking on the Natalie Munroe case somewhat after coming across some new information.  I will let the original post stand but encourage readers to look at the follow up.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one:

“Be careful what you post on the Internet,” Natalie Munroe told her students year after year.

Maybe if she had listened to her own advice, she wouldn’t be where she is right now: Suspended and at risk of losing her teaching job at Central Bucks East High School.

Munroe, who has taught English at CB East since 2006 and has a salary of $54,500 this year, wrote a blog called “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?” for more than a year. In between blog posts about muffins, Food Network stars and her favorite movies, she posted long, profanity-peppered rants about Central Bucks administrators, her co-workers and her students.

“My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners,” she wrote in one post dated Oct. 27, 2009. “They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire and are just generally annoying.”

Munroe wrote multiple posts in the year that followed in which she talked about her own boredom and used profanity to describe her students.

Ok, so let me get this straight:  over a year ago, a high school English teacher ranted about students in general (using no names or identifying information) on an anonymous personal blog, using such slanderous language as “rude, disengaged, and lazy” as well as unspecified swear words, and the internet has taken to its fainting couch, called for its smelling salts, and demanded that Munroe be taken to the village stocks and flogged for her misbehavior.

Oh yes, and evidently she has been suspended with pay, and her job is potentially in danger. If you go wade through the comments at some of those links (tread carefully) and hell, even some of the actual reporting, you’ll note that a number of depressing assumptions and stereotypes about educators:

That good teachers are long-suffering and eternally compassionate and never ever ever complain about their students and that teachers who complain are bad teachers who hate their jobs. I am here to tell you that I am married to an award-winning high school teacher.  We regularly hang out with other high school teachers, and they bitch about their jobs all of the time, including their students.  And most of them still qualify as excellent teachers with strong testing records and a legion of adoring students.  Because here is the thing:  teaching is not missionary work, even though state legislatures seem to want to make it so.  Teaching is a job, and sometimes people have bad days at work.  Teaching is also a job that involves a lot of interaction with people, and as a rule, people sort of suck.  Teaching is also a job that requires the job-holder to negotiate an often needlessly complex and even hostile bureaucracy.  And teaching, much like parenting, is a job that carries with it enormous unrealistic expectations that no human being could possibly fulfill.  So sometimes they need a safe space to tell it like it is.

That individuals who do not find the teenage propensity toward laziness and narcissism occasionally frustrating do not belong in teaching. If that were true, our list of eligible teachers would be desperately slim indeed.  Some commenters on this story have said something to the effect of:  “I hate teenagers, but I didn’t sign up to work with them everyday.  She shouldn’t be a teacher, because she clearly hates children.”  I would submit that there is a vast difference between having flashes of sublimated rage toward the teenager who tells you to “fuck off” under his breath after you’ve asked him for his homework and “hating children.”  It means that occasionally, some teenagers are disrespectful asshats, and like most emotionally healthy individuals, and most teachers have a appropriate emotional responses that may or may not get vented once said asshat has been sent to the Vice Principal’s office and said teacher has entered the sanctum of the Teacher’s Lounge.  Hell, if we applied this “you must find all minors uniformly adorably under all circumstances in order to interact with minors on a daily basis” rule fairly, we as a species would have to stop reproducing.

That teachers should never, ever communicate a general displeasure with students or her job in any form that could be detected by her students. Many have seen this incident as an object lesson in using discretion on the internet, and while I think the point is somewhat valid, I also think that insofar as Munroe’s blog was anonymous and never once named any students, administrators, or even the school, district, or state in which she was teaching, and given the sheer vastness of the internet, Munroe was reasonable to expect that no student would ever come across what she had written unless they were looking.  And I find compelling her claim that some student or parent may, in fact, have been cyberstalking her in order to find incriminating information.

That teachers whom students dislike are invariably bad teachers. There was a teacher at my high school who I hated but who I now recognize was an excellent teacher.  She was ballsy enough to teach evolution in a biology department at a Christian school in a state that barely teaches it in the public schools, and she expected the utmost from her students.  Considering that this was a college prep curriculum, I think she understood that she was not getting paid to coddle anyone, that she had a right–in her Honors class–to expect students to rise to the standard she had set based on two decades of prior experience.  She was also frequently accused of “hating kids,” despite the fact that she was raising a developmentally disabled child to whom she showed nothing but compassion.  She just did not have a warm, motherly, nurturing personality, and students who were used to making A’s made B’s in her class, and as a result, she was the target of numerous campaigns by students and parents to get her fired.  Luckily, her administration backed her up every time.  Anyone with a passing acquaintance with children can tell you that they resist and often resent being challenged.  And parents all too often over-identify with students who think they are being treated unfairly and are often unwilling to see their child as part of the problem.

Now, it would appear that not everyone is calling for Munroe to be drawn and quartered, and sympathy for Munroe has been rising ever since she began blogging again, revealing herself to be articulate and lucid when it comes to the issues facing public education today.  And one of those issues she has correctly identified is the fact that when we talk about improving education, we’re almost always talking about teachers:  teacher’s unions, teacher tenure, teacher qualifications, merit pay, how to deal with failing teachers, etc.  The conversation is always about holding teachers accountable.

And yet, with all of that specialized training, people second-guess and blame teachers for so many of the problems that exist in education today. Do we go to our doctors and lawyers and tell them how to do their jobs, and second-guess everything they do? Do we stand alongside chefs at restaurants and tell them we think the boulliabaisse looks like it needs some more saffron? No. We trust them to do what they’ve been trained to do. Of course it’s ok to ask questions along the way so we can know why something is happening or understand the process–but at the end of the day, some trust needs to come into play, too. Let’s let teachers do their jobs.

I doubt anyone could possibly disagree that accountability must be a part of teaching, but accountability in recent years has increasingly meant sucking all of the creativity, art, and dynamism out of teaching.  And it has increasingly been used as a way for politicians to look like they’re doing something without admitting that we as a society seem either unwilling or unable to hold students, parents, and communities accountable as well.  Any teacher will tell you that she can pour all the love and creativity she possesses into her teaching, but it doesn’t amount to squat if the student isn’t showing up regularly enough to receive it, and it doesn’t translate into better numbers if the student refuses to hand in an assignment despite being given every opportunity to do so.

The trend among administrations has been to avoid telling parents and students difficult truths.  One of the items that made Munroe’s detractors so irate was a list of fantasy responses she made up as replacements for the “canned comments” her administration insists teachers use on report cards:

At report card time, we are obliged to add a comment to supplement and/or expand on the letter grades. We are strongly encouraged to use the “canned comments” option, which have a limited number of comments from which teachers may choose to explain students. However, much like options on those magazine quizzes where you sit there scratching your head and mumbling, “Well, I’m a little bit A, but somewhat D, too… um, I wonder what I should pick,” some of the options don’t work for some of the kids. Some of the students don’t fit within the canned comments. And none of them allow teachers to truly reflect any sort of behavior or academic deficiency in any truly negative way. Examples of canned comments are: “cooperative in class,” “achieving at ability level,” “needs to complete homework,” “needs to increase study time,” “doesn’t take advantage of second chance learning.” So I took the opportunity for myself and the possible amusement of my friends–since I was content and expected for everything to stay low-key with only my 7 pals reading my ramblings–to list those real behaviors that exist but that you just aren’t allowed to write. (Parents don’t want to hear the truth; administrators don’t want us to share the truth.) But regardless, they weren’t comments meant to fit all students, and nor were they even for every student I wrote “cooperative in class” about–I was just being pithy when I made that joke.

In a very real way, Munroe’s “offensive” post on this matter vividly illuminates the utter disingenuousness with which teachers are asked to evaluate their students.  Spared difficult news about themselves, students (and their parents) can proceed blithely from high school to college without ever learning hard lessons about either the subject matter they are supposed to be learning or about the realities of entering the world as an adult.  And then they wind up in my classroom, incredulous that they are receiving mediocre marks for mediocre work.

Assignment Design and Making Your Grading Sessions Less Mind-numbing

Tenured Radical has a fantastic post up today about designing assignments in a way that encourages students to write scintillating analysis instead of boring dreck:

Whose fault was this?  My fault, that’s who.  I had given a highly conventional assignment that signaled to the students (correctly) that they were being tested (without being honest about saying so), and so the vast majority of them stayed in the right-hand lane and drove slightly under the speed limit (metaphorically speaking.)  Furthermore, I had failed for years to attend to this whole business of what students were talking about when they referred to a “prompt”:  hence I had given one assignment, and they had essentially received a different one than I intended.  So the next time around, lest I should be tempted to drive a pencil into my ear while grading, I gave them complete and utter freedom.  I asked them to choose their own document and to choose it based on something they were passionate about now.  I asked them to compare their own enthusiasm for this topic to the enthusiasm expressed in the document, and to use the document to understand better how their own passion was rooted in a history of other people who cared about this thing too.  When students asked me if it was OK to write about something they didn’t really care about, I said no.  Then I took the time to talk with them about what they did care about, and urged them to write about it.

I’m probably stating the obvious, but the way an assignment is designed and presented will, for better or for worse, greatly impact the quality of student’s output.  As TR argues, a rote, conventional assignment that suggests that a student is being tested on course content will inevitably generate rote, conventional regurgitations of that content.  If the major objective of that class is to get students to memorize and apply content, then that may be perfectly fine.  But if the major objective of your class is to get students to practice the analytical skills relevant to your discipline–as it is with many introductory humanities courses–then it pays to allow a bit more room for creativity, and it can be a good thing to get students to practice those skills on objects that appeal to them.

I’ve been using a literary studies version of this assignment for the past two years, and I have been thrilled with the results.  Since the Writing Flag program at my university requires me to assign a variety of assignments with varied lengths (which is something I would probably do anyway), I determined that reading one hundred odd essays on course texts would probably bore me and my students to death, so I have them produce a conventional literary analysis on a course text at the end of the semester, but before that, they write three short (1000 word) analyses of artifacts they find outside of class employing one of the critical methods we discuss.  They can pick a painting, a song, a poem, a novel, a film, a television show, a video game–pretty much anything is up for grabs.  And the results are not only twenty entirely unique essays for each assignment but essays that are actually fun to read.  For one thing, while many students feel intimidated by Literature with a big L and mistrust their abilities to even understand them, much less say something new and interesting, many of them are capable of producing erudite readings of texts and artifacts with which they are more immediately familiar.  And no, I do not receive sixty essays on television shows each semester.  In fact, current pop culture makes up a surprisingly slim percentage of the topics chosen, and even when it is the selected topic, we’re usually talking about sophisticated and original assessments of the movie Pulp Fiction from an RTF major who bothered to do secondary research.  Last year, I also had a student who wrote three essays on paintings from the escuela cuzquena school, a student who wrote about a Czech shrine, and a student who compared an Obama speech to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity.

My class is actually a topics course in Literature and Religion, and other teachers frequently express surprise that I’m willing to talk about religion in my class, since the potential for controversy is so high (made a bit worse due to the fact that our state legislature now reviews our syllabi).  However, I have yet to encounter a problem, and I suspect that this assignment is part of the reason.  While I insist that their analyses avoid confessionalism or polemic, there appears to be something both cathartic and educational about getting them to talk about cultural productions that are important to them and allowing them small space for sorting out their own beliefs relative to a much bigger world of ideas without ever having to debate Biblical literalism in class or argue about whose god can beat up all of the other gods.  In other words, while the essays are academic essays, they allow some small space for self-expression and creativity as well as critical thinking.  And that’s pretty much what any assignment in a course like this should be designed to do.

Finally, while there’s no way to scientifically prove it, I do think that making this the dominant writing activity for the lion’s share of the semester makes the end-of-term essays on a course text more original and more interesting.  The short essays do seem to make students more sensitive to the context in which texts are produced and build confidence in their own abilities to tease out an author’s agenda.  At the very least, the short assignments seem to demystify the whole notion of authorship and of Literature as a monolithic, impenetrable body of signs by encouraging them to use the same tools of analysis that they use to unpack more familiar, more accessible cultural products.

“Cultural” Problems and Structural Roots

Thomas Benton’s recent post on the Chronicle post on the hostility toward professors currently flowing through the media had a link back to a previous article about anti-intellectualism in the U.S. more broadly.  In this article, he reviews the arguments of many writers on the topic, from Richard Hofstader to Susan Jacoby and reflects on the symptoms of anti-intellectualism that seem to pervade his classroom:

As someone involved in education, I take the concerns of all of those writers quite seriously: The abilities and attitudes of students affect my life on a daily basis. It is my job, as I see it, to combat ignorance and foster the skills and knowledge needed to produce intelligent, ethical, and productive citizens. I see too many students who are:

  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their “feelings” — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.
  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.
  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.
  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)
  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.
  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).
  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.
  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while “needing” to receive very high grades.
  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.
  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

About half of the concerns I’ve listed — punctuation, plagiarism, argumentation, evaluation of evidence — can be effectively addressed in the classroom. But the other half make it increasingly difficult to do so without considerable institutional support: small classes, high standards, and full-time faculty members who are backed by the administration.

His assessment is avowedly subjective, though there are many items on that list that I think most college instructors would recognize in their own students.  He also does an excellent job of connecting the pedagogical solutions to these problems to larger structural problems within the university:  the increasing reliance on contingent labor and enormous class sizes even in freshman comp classes, to name a couple.

But Benton still commits a problematic fallacy that is ever so common in discussions of educational reform:  the assignment of blame to broad cultural forces rather than to specific problems in the way education is dispensed in this country.  The issues he identifies–lack of intellectual curiosity, unwillingness to perform effective research, inability to evaluate sources, and inability to produce effective, premeditated argument–could, in fact, be a product of the anti-intellectualism of the Bush era or the advancement of social media.  But as Tenured Radical so brilliantly argued a few weeks ago, there is peril in mislabeling problems as “cultural” when doing so effectively dismisses the issue as someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem:

In a college or university setting, however, when someone starts talking about “culture” it is too frequently the end of the discussion, an explanation for why things must be as they are and/or a way of distancing from something nettlesome. You will most frequently hear the notion of culture being invoked by administrators and faculty when what is being addressed is a problem, or set of problems, that either no one wants to name or can name — at least, not without opening a can of worms that general consensus dictates ought not to be opened.

Benton is, in fact, repeating a complaint so often heard among those who teach college freshman, some of whom suffer from a lack of exposure to college-level research and writing than a blanket contempt for learning.  So the real target for these sorts of complaints is actually high schools, who have failed to prepare their graduates for the kind of work they’ll be expected to do in a college classroom, presumably relieving the prof who teaches them of the burden of having to cover “fundamentals.”  The problem isn’t so much the fact that students are so goddamn anti-intellectual and lack the attention span God gave a goldfish as the fact that many students–particularly those from the poorly funded high schools where an enormous chunk of class time is spent teaching to standardized tests–sometimes aren’t as prepared as we would like them to be.

And the issue isn’t really about teachers, though I would love to see more incentives for public school English teachers to earn Masters degrees in Rhet/Comp and related fields.  Rather, teachers seem to be hamstrung by an educational system that favors standardized tests as the essential component of assessment rather than the research essays they’ll be expected to produce in college.  These are timed essays (students are usually given 45 minutes) in which students must simply bounce off the prompt and provide some sort of argument without having a chance to search for authoritative sources or really do much else but provide a gut-level response to the problem.  And this isn’t just the case in state-level proficiency exams.  This is what happens in the AP and SAT tests as well.  My first few weeks in any freshman comp class is usually spent deprogramming the types of skills they’ve honed in order to perform well on those tests:  the ability to instantly formulate a response to a question and spit out a 5-paragraph first draft that they will never look at again.

It doesn’t help that this is also the assessment model favored in many college lecture courses in the form of the short answer essay test.  While those essays are presumably informed by a semester’s worth of material, these tests do not teach the skills of research, source evaluation, and revision that produces good writing out in the real world.  As Benton says, this may simply be an artifact of ridiculously huge class sizes brought on by insufficient staffing, but I have to scratch my head when I see (and these do exist) profs who use these sorts of tests and then complain about the poor quality of freshman writing, when they themselves have offered no meaningful opportunities for students to reflect on and respond to feedback, much less revise their essays. Furthermore, there is a serious problem when a 3 or 4 on the AP test is taken as prima facie evidence of a student’s competence, when, for all of the reasons listed above, it does no such thing.  Yet students who earn such a score are frequently exempt from freshman composition classes or discouraged from taking them.

So we need reform at the high school level, obviously, but I would also like to see a better conversation among college instructors about precisely what sort of instruction students are getting in English classrooms in high school and what implications those conditions have for the way we conduct ourselves with today’s freshmen.  Rather than writing them off as lazy and high school English teachers as mere Ed majors who can never understand the nuances and complexities of our field, we would do better to simply understand the conditions under which both teachers and students are laboring and respond to them.  That doesn’t necessarily mean “lowering standards” (though these contentless, non-specific references to “higher standards” are another big problem in debates about education).  It means recognizing that these are skills that need to be taught and reinforced over and over again whenever we have the opportunity.  Teaching the fundamentals of writing and argumentation is the job of a college professor, whether any particular prof wants it to be or not.

But I would also like to see a better conversation take place among college and high school instructors.  I had the opportunity to be part of a ground-breaking program that paired college-level rhetoric courses with AP English classes in under-performing high schools.  The college students mentored the high school kids online and during campus visits, and I worked with the high school teacher to provide rigorous instruction in the fundamentals of argumentation, including evaluation of sources.  The high school kids ultimately produced two essays:  a rhetorical analysis and a researched position paper.  On paper, this sort of curriculum sounds like a dream, but in practice, we learned that there are some ridiculous logistical complications.  It is very difficult to get “buy-in” from both college and high school administrators on this sort of thing, especially in a recession, and any instruction that might be relevant to this program had to inevitably give way to the school’s testing schedule, which, I discovered, took up an enormous amount of time.  My final visit to the high school class had to be canceled thanks to changes in the testing schedule, and some other collaborations completely fell apart because the high school teacher could not give students enough in-class time to work on their projects. Nevertheless, that experience radically changed the way I teach college freshmen.

It’s comforting to think that problems with student writing these days can be traced to their generation’s inherent laziness or recalcitrance or their inability to communicate anything in over 140 characters, when their are structural problems behind those deficiencies that really aren’t their fault.  Furthermore, there are actual things that can be done to remedy these problems in the classroom, even if conditions aren’t completely ideal.

The Millenial Whisperers

Over at The Chronicle, a forum post on using technology to teach Millenials has been sitting at the top of the queue for quite a while.  The discussion is interesting to me, as I happen to be a bit of a tech geek, but there’s something curious about the way the conversation is often framed both in this thread and elsewhere.  The OP posits that “Millennials are supposed to be quite different from the previous generation” in their use of technology.  The video linked to the post describes them as “digital natives,” a generation that has grown up amid digital technologies and social media, but as a member of a tech-saturated generation myself (different rubrics label me either as a Millenial or as Gen-Y, though I think those terms are sometimes used interchangably), I’m not sure that this relative comfort with communications media implies specific imperatives for the classroom.  I’m not sure that this generation is so profoundly “different” that technology must be used to “reach” them.

As this post at Historiann indicates (as well as this post on Not of General Interest, which Historiann links), universities and school systems are exerting increasing pressure upon instructors to implement new media and tech in the classroom:

Administrators love technology, because people think it’s doing something magically special for education so they buy it and want professors to use it regardless of its actual strengths and powers.

The belief that technology has magical powers in the classroom extends to this idea that using social media makes one a sort of Millenial Whisperer, as if this generation were a different species or culture (digital “native?”) communicating in foreign ways.  There’s a strange way in which this effort at bridging a generational gap has become decidedly othering.  What makes it worse is the way in which an affinity for new media has increasingly been depicted as a dependency or pathology.  (For what I think is a truly balanced looked at internet addiction see the work of research psychologist Nick Yee, who prefers the term “problematic usage” to addiction.)   While it’s true that you can hardly turn around without seeing an alarmist article about a kid who spontaneously combusted because his parents took away his World of Warcraft account, most Millenials actually are capable of functioning without the mediation of a computing device.

Most students are, in fact, quite accustomed to traditional classrooms, given that most public schools cannot afford to equip every class with state of the art equipment.  Last fall, I was assigned a classroom that was like a portal to 1985, with a chalkboard and an overhead projector, and we all did just fine.  As a rule, I think that students appreciate an instructor who genuinely cares about their progress more than they care about whether you tried to incorporate Facebook into your course.  Be a good teacher first, then figure out how to use technology creatively and effectively, but only if it is going to a) make your life easier, or b) help you achieve some specific pedagogical goal.  And stick to tools that are comfortable to you.  If it seems like an unnecessary hassle or a poor fit to you, I guarantee it will feel that way to your students, who can smell pandering insincerity a mile away.

As for me, I’ve found that a class website, whether you manage it through Blackboard, a wiki, Facebook, or some other means, can be an invaluable tool, and next Spring, I am going to look at using WordPress blogs in order to help students think about writing for broader public rather than just writing what they think the teacher wants to read.  I am skeptical about the use of texting, because not everyone has an unlimited plan, and I suspect that being charge 10 cents to receive updates from your instructor probably isn’t much fun.  Using stuff that students can access for free in their home or in a lab is essential for me.

Technology can be incredibly useful for educators, but it is not a magical tool that will make you relevant to the generation you’re teaching.  Sincerity and genuine investment in what you’re doing, as it turns out, is pretty timeless.

Using PBworks for Paperless Classrooms: A How-to Guide

PBworks HomepageThe benefits of running a paperless classroom are many and obvious:  reduced environmental impact, lighter bags, no students running in late on the day a paper is due because the lab printer was down, etc.  While many instructors are comfortable using institutionally based software like Blackboard for this purpose, I’ve come to prefer the free wiki site called PBworks due to its simplicity, intuitive interface, and friendliness to collaboration.

PBworks runs on a wiki software, which means that each page can be edited by anyone approved by the site administrator.  This makes it ideal for group projects, peer review, sign-up sheets, and generating things like collaborative vocabulary or source lists.  While not terribly fancy, you can effectively store and organize all of your class materials on it and use it as your class home page if you so desire.  On student evaluations, students consistently cite the wiki as one of their favorite things about my class.

Getting Started: When you first visit the site, you’ll want to select “For Education” and “Sign Up Now.”  You’ll then be given three options at varying costs.  Our department has its own paid-for account, but most people will want to simply choose the free “Basic” option.  You’ll then be prompted to name your site.  Pick something like “americanlitfall10.pbworks.com.”  Keep in mind that you can create as many unique workspaces as you want, so you can have “americanlitspring11.pbworks.com,” etc. in the future.  I usually elect to keep my class sites private.

A newly created wiki This is what your wiki will look like when you first create it (click to embiggen any of these screenshots).  Note the four tabs at the top left of the page and the two tabs underneath.  Each page in your wiki will have a “View” and an “Edit” tab.  Remind your students that you have to be in “Edit” to change anything.  They will inevitably forget and get frustrated.  The first thing you will probably want to do is change your front page.  I usually put my vital course and instructor info in there.  Just for reference, here is a screenshot of my latest wiki (with my personal information blacked out).

The front page of my latest course siteThere are two fields on the right that you’ll want to make note of:  The Pages and Folder list and the Sidebar.  You can edit the Sidebar like any other page just by clicking “Edit the Sidebar” at the bottom.  The edit interface features all of the standard items in a MS Word, Blogger, or WordPress interface.  You can add hypertext links, images, and video.  You can also provide links to documents that you’ve uploaded to the site.  I use my sidebar for links to important class documents like the grading policy and reading schedule.

Next, you’ll want to look at the file management system.  There are shortcuts to all of your files and folders on the right hand side of every page, but you can also look at everything on your wiki by clicking “Pages and Files” on the top left.  This interface will allow you to upload files and create folders for each of your students (or they can create the folders themselves).  Here’s a view of one student’s folder, with the folder list on the side (last names have been erased for privacy purposes).

Paperless Submissions: Students can either upload assignments as Word files or cut and paste text into the standard page fields.  Both methods offer different advantages, which I’ll discuss in a moment.  You’ll want to make sure, however, that in any case, students give their documents and pages unique names that designate their name, the assignment, and the current draft.  Files that are uploaded with duplicate names will overwrite one another, and having unique names makes it easier to find an assignment that hasn’t been put in the proper folder.  You’ll note that each page/file is also time stamped, which is handy if you are a stickler about enforcing deadlines.

Recent Activity page

If you return to the main page, you’ll notice a field called “Recent Activity” at the very bottom.  It’s a short list of the last several things that were done on the site.  If you click “More Activity,” you can see every action performed on the site in order.  This is part of what makes my oddball late policy doable.  This feature allows me to grade papers in the order in which they were received and save papers that did not meet the deadline for my next grading period. (Note:  the fact that the site rigorously tracks changes and who makes them is a bit of insurance against any shenanigans.)

Add Users pageOnce you have your site organized the way you want it, you can start inviting your students.  If you go up to the Users tab on the top left, you’ll see a button that allows you to add more users.  Simply enter the email addresses of the people you wish to add.  They will be sent a link and prompted to create a PBworks account.  Alternatively, you can send your students the link to your site and allow them to request access.

Sample Peer Review ActivityPeer Review: One of the many activities PBworks allows you to, by virtue of the fact that anyone can edit any page, is virtual peer review.  If you don’t have a computer equipped classroom, this activity can be assigned as homework.  Have each student copy and paste their paper onto a new wiki page.  Then assign two students to read each paper.  Have the peer reviewers go in and enter their comments in a different color and identify their color at the bottom of the page.  Students can also use the comment feature at the bottom to make narrative comments and write into the page itself for line edits or specific comments.  Note the image on the left (from a rhetoric class two years ago).

Paperless Grading: Using the wiki for grading purposes is tricky due to FERPA restrictions.  While the wiki is technically private, it isn’t perfectly secure, so you should never ever post grades or any sort of evaluation on the wiki.  Here is what you can do though:  have students upload their final paper submissions as a Word document.  Download them and use the Word comments feature for marginalia.  Then type up a summary comment either at the top or bottom.  Then use a secure service like Blackboard to email the document to the student.  I don’t even put a grade on it, both out of paranoia and because I think it helps the student engage with the comments rather than worrying about the grade.  I post grades on Blackboard’s gradebook, and students know they can check for it there after they receive their paper.

Sample Sign-Up SheetPaperless Sign-ups: Here’s one more nifty thing.  I have various activities (presentations, one-on-one conferences) that usually require a sign-up sheet.  Not any more.  You can just create one on a wiki page and have students go in and enter their names.

So those are the basics.  There are many, many different ways that you can use this site, especially if you have a networked classroom.  Look here and here for a few assignments that use the wiki for collaborative assignments.