Blogs and Writing Pedagogy: what I should have said

April 7, 2011 § 22 Comments

“I just don’t see the blogs accomplishing your pedagogy like you think they do.”

I sit there, blinking. Crap. My jaw clenches. Don’t you cry, Amanda. Not now. Not in your annual review. I am so miserable in my job, and I’m positive he can tell. Despite my best efforts to prepare a portfolio that might suggest otherwise, I’m sure he can tell that I have been miserable for quite some time. But I’m afraid. If I tell him the truth, what consequences could I stand to risk? Might I be strung up? Would this follow me my entire life? If a potential employer asks him about my teaching experience, will I be ruined? Buck up. Seriously. Stop. Just don’t say anything. If you talk, you’ll definitely cry. Just don’t say anything.

“According to your students, they had trouble remembering to do the blogs. And it looks like they’re not worth much, only 10% of the overall grade, so doing them doesn’t really affect their overall grade.”

“Actually,” I cut in, my voice breaking. “They’re part of the 10% daily grade, which also includes quizzes.”

“Right, I saw that on your policy statement. That’s redundant. Daily quizzes and three blogs a week.”

“They’re not daily quizzes,” I try to explain. The tears are starting to rise up. Can he tell? “I give the quizzes randomly, but on average there are ten quizzes in a semester.”

“Okay, so my point is that the blogs don’t count for much, and if they’re sharing that 10% of the daily grade with a few quizzes, then they count for even less. Do you see how that gives the students little incentive to want to even do them in the first place?”

It takes a conscious effort to nod. Don’t say anything or else you’ll start crying. Shit, why are you such a baby? You’ve never been like this before in an annual review! Can’t you take criticism at all??

“Why did you come up with the blog assignment at all?”

The question surprises me. Catches me off-guard. It shouldn’t because I’ve been asked it before. Except…this is different. I think when I’ve been asked this question, it’s usually been phrased with the word how. This feels immediately judgmental. He has already made up his mind. He’s looking for a reason to change his mind. I won’t give it to him. I can’t give it to him. Not without crying.

“I-I guess I just…” I swallow. “To me, they’re like critical reading responses except the students have the opportunity to read each other’s responses and then respond to them as well. I wanted to keep the conversation going, I guess. I just….”

“Okay, but I’m not sure that it does that for you. The students remarked about how they often forgot to even do the blogs in the first place. I would recommend either eliminating the blogs entirely, reducing the number of blogs they should do in a week, or eliminate quizzes. Actually, I think I would recommend reducing the number of blogs in a week and eliminate the quizzes.”

I’m back to blinking. I really like the blogs. My students had seemed to really like the blogs. My mind is reeling. They forgot to do the blogs? But…according to my grade book, most of my students did most, if not all, of the blogs…. I have more students with perfect blog grades than students with failing blog grades. I don’t understand why they would claim that they didn’t remember to do them…. That’s not true….

The rest of the review continues in a similar vein. He pulls out the already-written assessment report, crosses out the word “eliminate” and replaces it with “reconsider” so that the final sentence now reads, “reconsider the blog assignments.” I sign the form, representing my agreement to his report. He was going to tell me to eliminate the blogs entirely…. My first out-of-the-box assignment failed. I walk out of his office and quickly get into mine, closing the door, and collecting myself. Don’t cry, not now. One more meeting. Don’t cry. I pull it together after ten minutes, and I am late to my next meeting. But I’m not in tears.

After several days of consideration, I realize now what I should have said. And now that I am beginning to apply for jobs, I realize what I did by not defending myself–if he serves as a reference, then he will deliver the same report he gave during my annual review. If I mention the blog assignment in my application materials (in spite of everything, I am still proud of it), then I now face the risk of the hiring manager asking him, “She mentioned something about blogs. What do you know about that assignment?” And what will he say? I surely can’t know, but I have a good guess.

I should have defended myself. I should have given him something else to say.

The blogs work.

1. Overall quiz grades from semesters without blogs to semesters with blogs have marked improvement. The reason? Students are reading. They have to do the readings in order to write the blogs. And if they did the readings, then they will do well on quizzes. Although I do change questions from time to time on my quizzes, the type of information I’m searching for is pretty consistent from semester to semester. My students’ daily grade average has improved.

2. They are a low-stakes assignment purposefully designed to be low-stakes. If a student forgets to write a blog once or twice, his or her daily average is not ruined. But, completing all blog assignments on time and receiving a perfect score on the blogging assignment by the end of the semester is equal to receiving perfect scores on four quizzes. It is a “gimme” assignment, but it’s supposed to be. Students are not graded on quality or content of the blog, except according to some basic standards (it should be about a specific text assigned that day and it should be analytical). They are not graded on how well they analyze (unlike their papers), but instead they are given an opportunity to practice analysis in a way that will not hurt their overall grade.

3. Class discussions are much more focused on critically analyzing the texts rather than “walking through” the plots. Students will chime in and say, “Yeah! I wrote about that on my blog!” And others will respond to that student in class. The classroom rapport is typically supportive, congenial, and encouraging. Because a student was able to sort of “try out” his or her idea on a personal blog, the idea was given space to develop so that it would be fully-formed by the time s/he brings it up in class. Even when students disagree with one another’s points, the comments are polite, respectful, and explanatory. They learn not only how to make their own points but also how to properly counter-argue against someone else’s points respectfully.

4. Papers and essay questions on exams are generally more analytical than summative. My students have physical evidence that their peers have previous knowledge of the text, so there is little reason to summarize major plot points. Because they’ve had the chance to practice analysis without fear of failure, they are often more confident in the presentation of their arguments. Because of this, I’ve been able to ask more from my students. And, for the most part, they deliver.

5. The blogs reinforce to my students the idea that one cannot be a good reader without writing, and one cannot be a good writer without reading. Although my students may have more writing assignments in a literature course than others may have, my students not only get the point but have it demonstrated to them that reading and writing are inextricable.

6. I use the blogs myself as a guide for class discussions. I usually try to peruse the blogs the day of class (since blogs are due by midnight the day before), and through that perusal I’ll see what they are confused about, what was interesting to them, what they really gravitated toward. And I will tailor class discussion based on their needs–do we need to unpack that theme more? explore that concept? Judging by exams, my students do get more out of these discussions from the blog posts.

I realize now that I should have defended myself and my blogs.

They work.

If I were to teach again, I would absolutely keep the blogs with no changes whatsoever. They would still be worth very little on the overall grade because low-stakes grades work. There would still be three blogs due every week. They would still have the same number of required words due per post.

My writing pedagogy is that through practice (constant, consistent practice), students develop basic communication skills as well as sophisticated analytical skills. Ideas develop best through writing. Texts are explored best through writing. Learning to write properly will inevitably lead to the ability to articulate an intelligent thought eloquently (either in speech or the written word). If my students are to believe that the literature was not composed within a vacuum, then I should demonstrate to them precisely how one composes devoid of a vacuum. And, thanks to the power of the Internet and new social media, blogs are a perfect method to free writing from a vacuum-like experience.

That’s what I should have said.

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§ 22 Responses to Blogs and Writing Pedagogy: what I should have said

  • sportsjim81 says:

    It’s always difficult, no matter your title or industry, to find the words to defend yourself when you are caught off guard like that. I can relate after a rather unfortunate set of circumstances led to my departure from my last job. Anyway, it’s good that you know what you should have said because you will be better prepared the next time you are questioned. For what its worth, I agree with you…I think the blogs are a good idea.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thanks, Jim. πŸ™‚ I appreciate your agreement! I think one of the things I need to focus on in my 30s is how to respond to people when I’m stunned. I think it’s inevitable that people will say things to us that are surprising and off-putting…but we should also be able to respond, don’t you think? Sorry that you had to go through this too and with worse results. That truly sucks.

  • Tori Nelson says:

    His critique made me want to cry, too. Ick. I hate that his frame of mind immediately went to eliminating the blog idea instead of trying to improve it. I can say that in college I would have LOVED to have a professor who gave assignments outside of the boring quiz-n-test routine. Students NEED originality from their teachers and you, my dear, gave them just that!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I think the student evaluations played a huge role in his assessment of the assignment. But I’ve had several students tell me at the end of the two semesters that I’ve done blogs so far that they are going to create their own personal blog so that they can keep doing this kind of thing. I love that. I affected that, you know? I agree that there needs to be a shake-up in the ol’ assignment routine. It gets boring for the students, and frankly it gets boring for the teachers as well (at least it has for me). Thank you so much for your support, Tori! πŸ™‚

  • Lauren says:

    Ugh… I wish you could e-mail him that. I can definitely tell the purpose of the blogs and their usefulness with this argument. I wish he would run into you and ask you about it — then you could give him the run-down :p

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I do too, sisturr. Lately I’ve been avoiding him, but if I really were to be given the opportunity to explain myself (and not get emotional about it), then this is exactly what I would say to him.

  • phdprocrastination says:

    I think the blogs sound like a great idea, and you definitely defend them well! From what I have been reading on your blog, it certainly sounds like you are a very committed and inspiring instructor, and that can be a very rare thing.
    Don’t you just hate it that the things we should have said never seem to come together at the right times?! That always happens to me too. Blech.
    Also, crying, and/or trying not to cry in other peoples’ offices is one of the worst feelings ever.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thanks! You’re right–I never feel as horrible as I do when I’m about to start crying in a professor’s office. I really think one of the things I need to learn to do is to think a little more quickly and avoid situations like this in the future!

  • Lisa says:

    I have a blog assignment this semester. For the students who do it, its working. For the students who don’t, it’s not. I have been struggling with it, because I am proud of the assignment, but I am failing at inspiring my students this semester. Is it me or is it them? I know longer can tell. But, those who do it, love it. I have seen each and every one of them grow as writers. Will I get complaints about it? Yes. Do I think it is worthwhile? Yes. Do I know how to defend it? Now I do, I will borrow your words. I would love to have had a teacher like you Amanda. Stay strong.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      That’s a great point. The students who don’t blog are the ones who don’t see the benefit. The students who blog (and consistently) not only themselves see the benefit but their work generally improves, too! Thank you for your encouragement, Lisa! πŸ™‚

  • Nobody’s comment should ever deter your vision for even a second. The blogs are a great idea. I’ve actually thought about that for the high school kids I tutor. Instead of the word “defend” I like to use the word “enroll.” If I have a great idea, my job is to enroll others in it as well.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Renee. πŸ™‚ And I love the term “enroll” instead of “defend.” It’s a lot less victimized, isn’t it?

  • I’m terrible when it comes to explaining things under pressure, especially if I feel intimidated. Your blogs sound like a great idea! Anything that keeps students thinking outside class and participating in a discussion has to be good. At least it would seem to me. Best of luck with your class and your boss.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thanks, FringeGirl! I thought my blogs were a great idea, too, lol. I was really excited when I first thought of them and then I crafted all these plans for assignments over the course of a few days just out of that excitement alone. I’m trying to recall that confidence in my assignments now.

      I think what struck me as the worst part of all was that I really REALLY like this professor. He’s always been so funny and kind, and boy is he smart! I’ve sought his advice more than twice, and he’s always been willing to give it, even if it was for a class or a project he wasn’t directly involved with. But this was the first time he conducted an annual review for me. So, that in itself was intimidating (had no idea what to expect from him), and I think that’s part of what was so stunning. Despite our awesome rapport, I still left his office feeling like my annual review had been a disaster. I think he would probably say otherwise, because probably from his perspective there was nothing abnormal in our interactions at all. Unless, of course, he could tell that I was almost in tears, lol.

  • Lacy says:

    If it makes you feel better, Amanda, I think he was…hypercritical. Of everyone. I’ve never had a review that rough or felt like I needed to defend myself so much, and my evals from last year were amazing, so it isn’t like he had student feedback to base them on. He told me that I should “refrain from allowing students to choose their own topics to prevent plagiarism.” And I’ve never disagreed so much about any critique, ever. I give my students very specific essay topics, but I also give them the option to choose their own topics instead. The catch is they have to have an introduction and thesis approved by me at least two weeks before the paper due date. Plagiarism has never been an issue before with that option because plagiarists don’t plan that far ahead–only my best and brightest students who truly feel drawn to a topic ever try to take on creating an original topic of their own that far in advance. And it is for that reason that I refuse to take the option off my assignment sheet. I refuse to stifle their creativity. If they feel passionately about a topic, I believe they should be able to write about it.

    He also took issue with how I classified certain writers and said I had to reduce the number of British and American authors I had on my list by at two-thirds. Oh, but I get to “keep Achebe.” Umm, last time I checked, Achebe was Nigerian. I knew he was taking issue with the fact that so many of my writers wrote in English originally, but I’m sorry, in our postcolonial world the majority of African and Indian writers (two regions I focused heavily on) do write in English. That doesn’t minimalize their “world” experiences, I don’t think.

    And I’m pretty sure there are few syllabi more diverse than mine. Sure, I have a fair amount of British and American writers, but I also represented India (four texts), Nigeria (2 texts), Haiti, Egypt (2 texts), Norway, France, Ireland, China (2 texts), Spain, Senegal, and Algeria, and even my American texts were mostly by writers who represent a minority experience (e.g. Harriet Jacobs, Jhumpa Lahiri).

    Sorry to rant, I just wanted you to know that you weren’t the only one who left your review feeling flustered and who decided almost immediately that no matter what was said, you weren’t going to change a thing.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I’m sorry that you had a challenging review, too. And, I don’t think that our reviews were so challenging because we refuse to take criticism or advice. I think, at least this is how i felt, there was an intimidation factor (intentional or otherwise–although I doubt he was trying to intimidate…he’s just not that kind of person). I felt like I was immediately put on the defense because the review began with, “So, how do you think the term went?” And since I had refused to relive that horrid term by reading my horrid evaluations, I was worried that he knew something that I didn’t…and now he was alluding to it…and I was stuck trying to guess what it was that he already knew. And I realize that that was my fault, but I didn’t like that I immediately felt so defensive.

      He told me, too, that my syllabus required too many texts. I tossed the anthology for the first time in Spring 2010, and so I tried to select texts that represented world literature–and he said that I accomplished that, but that my class was too expensive and that I should go back to the anthology if we’re not going to read more selections out of the books I ordered. I should have also told him that we (GTAs) receive no guidance on selecting our own texts, so when a GTA attempts to maintain the World Lit curriculum (especially for WL1), it is extremely difficult to represent a broad but even-handed range of cultures, eras, genres, sexes, etc. without asking our students to purchase a large number of books. I should have said that either the WL “orientation” offer clear guidance on how to select individual texts while simultaneously meeting the curriculum OR disallow GTAs to teach outside of the anthology. (Personally, I would prefer the guidance. I like selecting my own texts and translations.) But it can’t be the way it is now. It can’t be “you can choose to not use the anthology after your first year of teaching WL” and NO guidance how to do that. Obviously, that’s not working.

      I wonder if we are given exit surveys upon graduating. I have many things I’d like to say.

  • Your pedagogy is sound! Very, very sound! Brilliant, in fact. If I were you I would submit your rationale in writing and ask that it be attached to the review! Moreover, I would suggest you write a paper about this pedagogy and submit a proposal to that big annual rhetoric conference–I forget what it’s called, the C___ something or other–the Three C’s maybe. I really think you are on to something! This person doing your review must not work in Rhetoric and Composition, because I think most comp theroists would love your idea.
    Kathy

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Four C’s! πŸ™‚ (CCCC–Conference on College Composition and Communication) I went to the Cs for the first time in 2009 and presented a paper on the rhetoric of tattoos. It was a fun paper and a pretty fun conference. And no, my reviewer is a literature person (since I taught World Literature all last year, I was reviewed by the director of the World Lit program), but I think if I had had a little more presence of mind, I could have convinced him that my blogs are a great assignment.

      I like the idea of writing something that should be attached to the review. I’ll think about that…if the review has to be in my file, then there should be something in defense of the blogs there, too, right? Some sort of Blog Apologia. πŸ˜‰

      • Robert says:

        Perhaps I’m thinking too hard for 8:30 in the morning, but your last little comment got me thinking…

        Maybe you are on to some sort of AreoBLOGitica. I mean, if we go back to our Milton, Areopagitica (besides being AMAZING) is all about the censorship of the press and the licensure that was necessary for works to be published in the mid-1600s.

        In essence, I think you and J. Milton are talking about a similar conversation. These blog assignments that you have are a means for your students to “publish” their ideas anonymously, without fear of censorship from their peers. If anything, your blogs actively require your students to engage in critical thinking exercises that, at times, can be a place for them to seriously question long held beliefs, classroom pedagogical strategies, and, as you’ve seen in the past, their own instructor.

        And you know what? Even when you get brought into the blogs by ballsy students that see it as a venue for them to take shots at you, the blogs remained up. You commented on them, but you did not censor them. I think that speaks VOLUMES about the sanctity of your blogs and the appreciation that you have for authentic student learning. I think a lesser teacher would have pulled the plug on the assignment, removed al offensive posts, publicly outed/humiliated the student in class, and never look back to the assignment.

        Like I said, it’s early and I’m only halfway through my cup of coffee…but I think you’re onto something.

  • Dana says:

    I agree with Kathy. Now that you’ve had a chance to think about it AND come up with a pretty amazing rationale for your blogs, I would submit this post (or a slightly revised version for professional purposes) and ask for the issue to be revisited, especially if it’s part of your annual review. Stay strong and keep believing in yourself! (I know this is difficult to do, especially in academia where the whole point is sometimes to justify ANYTHING and EVERYTHING about yourself– but I know you can do it.) Good luck!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Yeah, I really like Kathy’s idea, too! πŸ™‚ I’m definitely going to give it some consideration.

      Thank you for your encouragement. Academia really is all about justifying yourself–at least, until you’ve reached that brass ring and earned tenure. I just don’t know if I have it in me to spend my entire adult life justifying my existence to other people, lol.

  • […] A couple of weeks ago, I had my annual review. And I subsequently blogged about it. Twice. […]

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