The Best-Laid Plans…

So, it ended up being a busier semester than I thought it would be: what a surprise.  I hope I will have time to post more matierals in the coming weeks, but for now, I can report two relevant additions to the site.

The first is a link to my Teaching with Technology portfolio, which I completed in March for a Teaching with Technology certificate.  The second is a slide presentation and embedded YouTube video of a five-minute talk I recently gave on technical writing.  You can find it under ‘About Me’ for the time being.

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Finally Posting Materials

At long last, three months after I decided to make this site a resource for teachers, I’ve started uploading materials.  Now you can find actual content for the syllabus, the assignment pages, the blog assignments, and the ENGL 015 page.  I’ll try and keep uploading materials once a week, and I’m thinking about starting a log, to keep track of what we do in class each day.

As I find the time, I’ll start adding notes to the posted materials.  If anyone out there is reading and you’re curious about something, don’t hesitate to ask.

The Digital Revolution (or not…)

I’m just beginning to find out about all the web resources that are out there for teachers; a friend of mine posted this on Facebook, and I thought I’d pass it along.

Inside Higher Ed: “The Revolution Will Not Be Subscription-Based,” by Barbara Fister

This article isn’t necessarily the best discussion of the subject (or the most focused), but the stats further down the page about student technology use are deeply interesting:

“When project teams interviewed 560 undergraduates studying in libraries at ten institutions, they found students were keeping it simple. Most of them had only one or two electronic devices with them: a phone and a laptop. Most of them were focused on getting an assignment done or were studying for a class. Most of them had only a couple of webpages open in a browser, and they weren’t the same websites; they were browsing all over the place. Only a small percentage were on familiar sites like Facebook or Wikipedia. Few of the students interviewed (11%) had used a library databases in the previous hour and even fewer (9%) had used library books. Many of them were keeping an eye on text messages, email, and Facebook, but only when taking a break from their work. They weren’t multitasking in that legendary fashion we expect of this generation, nor were they enamored of trendy new digital devices. Only seven of the 560 students was using an iPad or other tablet device. Only three had a Kindle or other e-reader.”  -Barbara Fister

A Shift in Purpose (for the blog, anyway)

I recently moved both of my classes from a combination of the website and the wiki to just the wiki; it seemed clear to me that things would be less complicated and more efficient for the students that way.  I had them write about whether they thought it would be more convenient (got a surprising number of people who just didn’t care), and offer suggestions for any improvements they wanted to make.  We met in a S-Tech classroom the next day (one with a computer for each student), and moved things over and made the changes together, which, among other things, may have encouraged them to take more ownership of the wiki.  Surely it’s unambiguous that they’re allowed to make changes to it when the teacher supervised their doing so in class, right?

Anyway, this meant cutting the website loose, which was part of why I felt trepidation about making the changeover in the first place; considering how much teeth-gritting, brain-scrambling, hair-tearing self-training I did in order to build the damn thing, the idea of just not using it anymore was almost heart-breaking.  (I know, lots of hyphenated words, but that really is how bad it was.)  But, since it was clear that moving everything to the wiki was better for the students, I was powerless to resist, and move everything over we did.  Then a few days ago, I was thinking about just taking the website down, and it occurred to me that there was still something I could do with all that material: I could move it over here.  That is, I could attach all my class-associated materials to this blog, where I talk about my teaching experiences.  Visual aids!  Free handouts and syllabus advice!  Actual resources made available to composition teachers who need them, among my coworkers and beyond!  And then, this blog could actually have a purpose and an audience, instead of just rambling about my classes’ progress and whatever teacher-y thing is on my mind today.

Composition teachers usually don’t get enough support from their departments, not least because even the best-intentioned people aren’t sure what they need; most of the online resources for day-to-day logistics are either useless, or buried in expensive members-only archives.  I’m not saying my stuff is so super-fantastic that everyone should use it (I’m continually refining it myself), but it’s produced good results for me, and I’ve had to make it all up as I went along.  I’d like fewer composition teachers to have to do quite so much of that.  So, I’ve already started duplicating the other site’s structure, and I’ll be moving over material in the next week or so.  If it helps even one person teach their class better, it will have been worth all the teeth-gritting and brain-scrambling.

A Fresh Batch of Papers

It was just a week ago that I finally gave the first round of papers back to my 11:15 section (I’m alternating between the two classes so I don’t have to give back 48 papers on the same day), and now I have the second round from my 8:00 class (yes; 8 am.  Three times a week.  arrgh…).  It’s not quite as bad as the summer session, when I got a round of papers from my class every week and compelled myself to give them back in no more than two days, but it still feels like, “Didn’t I just do this?”

The first six weeks of the semester have gone by in a flash.  Yes, I have two classes now; the 8:00 class is holding up remarkably well in terms of attendance so far, but the 11:15 group is a little more daring and energetic, and somehow much better at following instructions, on average.  Their work has been about what I’d expect from freshmen in their first semester of college (some of them are very fresh), and we’re having most of the usual conversations: writing to your audience, rather than at or about them; choosing points that your readers will find persuasive, rather than just the things that matter most to you; controlling the desire to rant; the need for careful proofreading (along with the always shocking admonishment not to trust their spell-check); the difference between striving for perfect grammar and doing enough to be taken seriously.  We’ve been working on the definition paper recently, which is always difficult for freshmen; language isn’t usually something people think about very much, and the meaning of particular words is something we take very much for granted, until we reach a point in higher education or citizenship where definitions attain paramount importance.  When you first try to think about how we use language in context, it’s a little like trying to stare at the end of your own nose.  (At least, that’s how I explain it to my students.)  During the summer session, one of my students actually wrote in a blog about this paper, “Turn one word into 1500?  I’m not a magician.”

Now we’re moving on into the personal narrative, which I like to introduce by talking about the powerful evocative qualities of language, that is, poetry.  I’m still beating the kinks out of this lesson (it always starts with such blank stares from the students, who are all having high-school flashbacks about meter and metaphors and rhyme schemes), but I think I’ve got it on the right track now.  I usually start it with “The Raven” because I figured most of them would have seen it before, but today I’m wondering if that’s a mistake; it may be what’s bringing on the high school flashbacks.  It might be better to open it up with the next example, a Dorothy Parker poem:

I like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I’m under the table,

After four I’m under my host.

It catches them off-guard (they’re not used to poetry being funny, at least not in English class), and it’s easier to talk about because all the tricks are right up front.  There’s a play on words (“under the table; under my host”), a sense of eschalating chaos, and because it ends after the fourth martini, the implication is, that’s the end of the line.  And, as one of my students pointed out this morning, you really hope it’s the end, ’cause what would she do after five martinis?

With “The Raven,” I also like to talk about some of the surface tricks rather than trying to get into deep exegesis (for one thing, I don’t really know what Poe was talking about myself; for another, I’m not teaching a literature class).  The verse has a strong and steady rhythm that’s easy to hear when it’s read aloud, and Poe does some wonderful things with alliteration and choosing his sounds carefully.  Next we talk about “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” and then W. H. Auden’s untitled poem (“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…”).  With this one, we do talk about what it means and what’s happened (after all, it’s easy to tell), and about the power of verbal images, as opposed to explicit statements.  You’ll notice there hasn’t been a word in here about trochaic feet or rhyme schemes, partly because of my own philosophy that meter is to poetry as chemistry is to cooking: you need a clear understanding in order to do it well, but you don’t need it to appreciate the effects.  The point of the lesson is to skim the surface and give the students a sense of the range of possibilities open to them in more artistic writing and the creative use of language.

If I have time, I also talk a little about Sylvia Plath, The Iliad, and Beowulf, mostly to disabuse my students of the notion that poetry is nice and pretty.  The Auden poem shows them pretty clearly that creative writing can convey powerful emotion and hit hard; I also like to show them that it can be gritty and violent and dark.  We don’t really get into depth on anything, but as I said, that’s not the point; the point is to widen their view of what’s possible, what they can do, here and elsewhere.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and one of them will write their narrative in verse (hey, it’s possible; one of my summer students did).

Looking Back and Carrying On

It’s hard to believe it’s been two months since I posted here last.  I’ve learned that, during the downtime, I’ve actually aquired some readers (to my inexpressible astonishment, as Chesterton would say), so I thought I should make an effort to get back on the blog and post some further teacher stories.

If you’re wondering about my summer students, they finished up extremely well, two weeks after my last post.  The inordinate number of A’s and A-‘s for the course may (or may not) have been due to my first experiment with teaching a revision assignment.  During my first year, while compelled to use the department syllabus, I used to allow re-writes of papers that received a 75 or below; the student was required to discuss the paper and planned revisions with me before I would give my permission, and then had a week to complete a revision, which replaced the original paper grade.  Since my summer students barely had time to complete their ordinary work, I decided rewrites were quite impossible, and instead made the final paper a revision, to replace the grade of the paper being revised.

There was an obvious flaw in this plan, which only one of my students pointed out to me, and I’m afraid I didn’t deal with that flaw very well at the time.  Or, really, at all.  One of my best students (his paper grades had been 98, 98, 100, 100, 100) asked me what was in it for him, since I had already promised (recklessly) that no one’s grade would go down because of the revision.  I tried to persuade him that this was an opportunity to learn, but, being one of my best students, he saw pretty clearly that he was being hustled, and responded accordingly.  I had his original draft to compare to his final, and as far as I could tell, his revision consisted of changing five commas into semi-colons.

As you might imagine, I’ve reformulated the revision assignment for my fall students.  Perhaps I prefer to believe the best of people, but my own experience has led me to conclude that students don’t shirk out of malicious intent; they have to prioritize their work, and especially toward the end of the semester, anything that isn’t strictly necessary is going to get dropped, because there’s other stuff they have to work on.  So, my new formulation of the revision assignment makes actual revision necessary.  The revision assignment is now to be graded in two parts: half for the quality of the draft, and half for improvement over the original draft.  The grade for quality, as before, replaces the original grade for the paper; the grade for improvement is its own 15% of the final course grade.  Thus, a paper that received a 98 in its original form, if unchanged, would receive a 98 for quality, and a 0 for improvement, and there goes fifteen percent of your final grade.  I think this should provide sufficient incentive.

That one student aside (who, I must admit, found the flaw in my plan with admirable dexterity), most of the class did very well on their revisions, and passed the course with flying colors.  I had only one who failed, one frank young man who had been trying, in good faith, to get just the 70 he needed in order to pass the course.  This particular student had racked up several absences, and just barely maintained a passing grade since the first paper.  It was his bad luck that I was heading out of town the day after classes finished; it was much more his bad luck that his final draft of the revision paper FELL OUT OF ITS FOLDER, and remained in his bag after he had turned in the folder to me.  I won’t bore you with the email exchange in which I informed him that he hadn’t turned in his final draft and he accused me of losing it (without bothering to look in his own bag first); the end of the story is, he received a failing grade for not turning in his final draft, but was upgraded from an F to a D after sending me the paper by email.  (Having read the draft, I doubt he would have earned much better than a D for the course anyway.)

Now I have two new sections of freshmen (some of them very fresh), bright and energetic kids who are keeping up relatively well, and who are holding up through further experiments with the wiki and the textbooks, but that’s for another post.  I’ll miss my summer class, and I’m grateful for what they taught me.  It’s very nice to run into one of them on campus once in a while; they always stop to say hello.

Four Weeks Down

It’s been another week, and my students are turning in their proposal papers tomorrow.  It’s their fourth paper in four weeks; needless to say, their interest is flagging a bit.  I started this morning’s class with a brief pep talk to the effect that we only have two more weeks to go, and the final paper will be a re-write.  This brought their energy back up for the peer review session, which went really well, and a brief lecture on style techniques.

Last week I asked my students for a blog post evaluating their work so far in the course, areas where they’ve progressed or are still struggling, and topics we haven’t covered yet that they’d like to discuss.  Several of them wrote that they felt weak on choosing the right word, and a few of them said that they felt something crucial missing from their writing.  One student called it, “the thing that makes you want to jump out of your chair and do something.”  Getting to watch my students’ minds expand is my favorite part of the job, but this one took me by surprise; this reaching for power, for eloquence, is something I’ve never heard students express before.

Because of this, I made today’s style lesson about elegant phrasing tricks and selecting the fitting word.  I drew examples from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms.  I encouraged them not to think too much about the phrasing tricks, just to be aware that these were things they could try, but there were a whole host of other things that we could never hope to cover.  We talked about placing the important word at the end of the sentence, putting contrasts in parallel (“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”), and extending metaphors (“A man’s face is his autobiography.  A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”).

There are few things more difficult than explaining good style and le mot juste (the fitting word); usually the best one can do is provide strong examples, and urge the students to read the best stuff they can get their hands on.  No one was better at finding le mot juste than Oscar Wilde.  The only other thing I could think of to do was provide some general (really general) principles, one of them being that there is no right word; there is only the fitting word, and sometimes there is the best word.  Most of my teaching philosophy works on the principle that absolute rules confuse and constrict, and students should do what works, but sometimes they need a nudge in that direction.  I find myself reminding them a lot that there isn’t one right way; no word is magic, and there is always more than one approach that works.

They seemed to find the style lecture really interesting (at least, that’s what I deduce from the hurried note-taking that was taking place during my slide presentation), and I’m hoping I’ll be able to generate some more material in that direction for the final two weeks; I always seem to get further with each new class than I did with the one before.  Maybe that’s an illusion of hindsight, but somehow I always come to the research paper, which we’ll start tomorrow, not really knowing what else to teach them.  I guess we’ll see what I come up with.