Misc. Post on the end of the school year

I wrapped up my winter 2009 term yesterday; here are some miscellaneous thoughts on the school year that was:

  • I taught a full load this year, which in my department is three courses a term. Last year, when I was on quasi-sabbatical, I taught one course. The year before that, when I was both the writing program coordinator and the acting director of first year writing, I taught two courses, one each term. The year before that, when I was just the writing program coordinator, I taught two courses each term. In other words, I’ve taught almost as much this last school year as I did the previous three.
  • Not that I’m complaining, mind you. My classes are a lot smaller than the classes most of my lit colleagues teach, and I like teaching more than I like release time administrating. I think. I don’t think there’s a lot of difference in terms of work-load, but there is definitely a different kind of rhythm to “just teaching.”
  • In the fall, I taught all on-campus for the first time in quite a while. It was interesting to think of the similarities and differences between face to face teaching and online teaching. I was reminded of a presentation I saw once at the CCCCs a long time ago where some computers and writing big-shot (his name escapes me right now, but I think he has since retired– I’m not sure) gave a presentation about how not teaching in a computer lab for the first time in a long time. Among other things, he felt like he became “the server” because he was collecting and hauling around all this paper from his students. And I was also reminded of the section in Steve Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You when he hypothesizes about what people would think of the book if it came after video games. In any event, one of the ideas that’s been rattling around my head all year is a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed-like article where I talk about the same thing with online teaching. The criticism/critique of teaching online is always “you can’t do ‘x’ in an online class the same way you can do it in a face to face class;” but what I kept thinking about last fall was how I couldn’t or wouldn’t do ‘y’ in my face to face class the same way I could in my online class, if that makes sense.
  • I had students in both English 328 and in English 516 make movies of different types this year. The 328 students worked in small groups to make a short movie and then they each wrote essays about the experience. I learned lots and lots from the experience. What I found most interesting about the movie making for the 328 class was that as a collaborative project, it more or less worked the same in both the face to face classes and online classes. In the face to face classes, I had students get into groups to make the movies, gave them some time and help when the asked for it, and pretty much turned them loose onto it. Some groups got right down to business, some mostly stood around pointing fingers at each other about who’s responsible for not getting things done, and most groups were somewhere in-between. In the online classes, I had some groups get right down to business, some blame each other, and most somewhere in-between. Students who really were “distant” (and out of two 20 student sections of 328, I only had three or four students who really were a long ways away) tended to be the script writers, and I’m hoping to find ways to get them more involved in the actual production with other tools like taskbarn.
  • For 516, I had students make movies as book review presentations. This is something I have been doing in the online version of the class for the last couple years, but for those classes, I let students off the hook by letting them use things like PowerPoint with sound files attached and by not having any real time limits. This time around, I specifically said they could not use PowerPoint and they had to be 10 minutes or less. But just like the online version of the class, I didn’t give these students any instruction on how to do this– more or less, I told them to go and figure it out. Well, almost no instruction; we did have one evening session where students spent about an hour working together to make a little movie right there in class, the point being that the available technology makes this really easy to do nowadays. Plus I did work with a number of students to get their projects to work. So given my “hands off” (mostly) approach to teaching this and my relatively low expectations, I was pretty much blown away by the quality of these presentations. As you can see from this link to the category of book reviews from the class blog/site, some videos are obviously better than others, but some of these are really quite good. This idea for 516 is a keeper for me.
  • I like the projects for 328 I have now, including the collaborative movie and essay about it, but I did very much miss having my 328 students keep web sites where they posted their essays. I had a particularly hard time all year trying to convince students about the need to write for an audience beyond just the teacher, and I have to wonder if any of that is this lack of a truly public space where they post writing. Or it could just be my imagination. In any event, I’m thinking about having students keep WordPress.com blogs because WordPress has the distinct advantage over Blogger of allowing for static pages, meaning students could still post the assigned blog writings to the ongoing “blog part” of things while posting finished/revised drafts of essay projects to static pages on the site. I’d have to change some instructions on blogging, but I don’t know if WordPress.com is that much harder than Blogger is nowadays.
  • I had a kind of a troubling email exchange with a grad student this year; for obvious reasons, I’m not going to post any details about that. But the incident did make me reflect a bit on some of the downsides of the “student-centered classroom” and/or empowering students– particularly graduate students– in certain ways. I don’t have any of these kinds of problems with about 97% of my students, of course; but that 3% can cause troubles and that stick in my mind.

    Most of the time, the small amount of problems I have are pretty much harmless; for example, I can think of times when I’ve laid out some sort of activity for a class– say a small group activity or a peer review or something like that– and then a student says “I think I have a better idea about how we should do this.” Um… well, I am sometimes open to these kinds of suggestions, but no, probably not, because I usually plan this stuff out in advance. Sometimes, when the student thinks of themselves more as a “colleague” than a student (usually an older student and/or a grad student who is also a teacher as a graduate assistant, at a community college, or at a high school), this can become kind of problematic to say the least because, well, we’re not really colleagues.

    And sometimes, this sense of empowerment/entitlement can cross the line into a sort of weird student “bullying” of the teacher. I’m not talking about a student questioning a grade, though I suppose that completely legitimate conversation can cross over to bullying. I’m talking about a space where a student feels so empowered and entitled to get in the teacher’s “face,” usually metaphorically, in order to get her or his way. You know, a bully. Maybe a student bullies the teacher because they feel overly empowered (consciously or not) by a sort of warped idea that the student-centered classroom means that the student ought to get whatever he or she wants. Maybe it’s a part of the “student as customer” culture. Maybe some people are just jerks.

    Like I said, these are very rare problems and I don’t want to dwell on this too much. I had some fantastic students this year, I really did. But it’s funny how that one or two really mean students stick with you.
  • Anyway, that is the school year that was, and now it’s time for spring/summer break. Not that this means it’s time for a “break,” really; I am teaching in the spring term starting May 1, I’ve got a ton of other writing projects to get on, and there’s a whole bunch stuff to do around the house. But you get the idea.

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